Healthy Living: ‘Time to talk’ to stop ordeal of mental illness

Liz Versi and Lisa Towers in the Rethink advert
Liz Versi and Lisa Towers in the Rethink advert
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When Lisa Towers first began experiencing panic attacks in her 20s, she found it a frightening and distressing experience.

Working as a hairdresser at the time, her first attack came on without warning as she was with a customer.

“I had an overwhelming feeling of dread and my heart started racing, I thought I was going to pass out,” she said.

“I didn’t know what was happening to me - I thought I was going crazy.”

Lisa was prescribed antidepressants, and was well-supported by her family, but still felt she couldn’t discuss her struggles more openly.

However, years later she mentioned her experiences to work colleague Liz Versi, who revealed she had her own experiences with depression.

After setting up their own support group, the pair are appearing in an advert which gets its first broadcast on commercial television channels today - also informally known as Blue Monday, the symbolic ‘most depressing day of the year’.

The advert - called It’s Time To Talk - is part of Time To Change, a programme run by charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, which aims to get more people discussing conditions like Liz and Lisa’s.

“People who might have one of these conditions might never get cured, but it’s something that’s part of you,” said Liz, aged 38, from Walkley.

“You can learn to live with it, have a good life, and maybe do things to help other people.”

Lisa, now 45, from Beauchief, added: “It is easy to know what’s out there nowadays - you don’t have to go on medication and there are other methods - you’re not alone.

“I can honestly say I wasted about 10 years of my life to anxiety attacks.

“My second panic attack was on a bus, so I started avoiding buses, but then the next one was on a train, so I avoided them too. It just grows.

“I’ve never not worked, and I’ve always been independent, but it has restricted my life. The key is accepting it, like the old cliché ‘fight the fear and do it anyway’, which is true.”

Three years ago Liz and Lisa, both civil servants, attended a diversity awareness session at work where they learned of their similar ordeals.

“I turned to Liz and said ‘I wish there had been something in work that supported people with mental health problems, as I’ve struggled so much with anxiety and panic attacks’,” said Lisa.

“I was worried about Liz’s reaction but she turned and said ‘Wow so do I - I struggle alone with depression.’”

As a result, they decided to set up a support group called Break The Stigma, holding presentations and giving talks to management.

They also set up a ‘wellbeing room’ at work, filled it with helpful information, and even scented the space with lavender, known for its relaxing properties.

More than 200 staff are now on Break The Stigma’s mailing list, and events are arranged every three months involving guest speakers from organisations such as Sheffield MIND or Samaritans.

Lisa and Liz said they were both happy to have taken part in the prime-time TV advert.

“It’s a good cause,” said Liz. “When we were asked to be involved, it was made very clear that a lot of people will see it, and that some people might recognise us and ask questions.

“But we’re just happy to be involved. If it helps to raise awareness, for me that’s all that matters basically.”

Time To Change is also holding an event called Time to Talk Day on February 6, with the mission of ‘starting a million conversations’ about mental health.

Visit for details.