It’s through painful personal experience that Katie Piper knows how important a support network can be for your mental health.
In March 2008, Piper suffered life-changing burns in an acid attack and has since undergone around 250 operations. Despite her experiences, Piper couldn’t be more positive or uplifting to chat to. She now dedicates her time to helping others – and doesn’t just want the focus to be just on physical health, but the mental side of things as well. "Mental health and physical health are so equal," she notes, and knows how damaging it can be to shut yourself off from the world.
"If your mental health is suffering when you’re physically ill, it’s usually because of isolation," she explains, knowing that you can easily think things like: ‘I’m the only person this is happening to, no one understands, why me.’ Piper remembers having low moments like this during her recovery, but she turned things around, in part due to setting up the Katie Piper Foundation in 2009, which helps support people with burns and scars.
"When you create that network, when you get someone in your corner supporting you, you normalise it," she says. "You meet other people at different stages who might be further recovered, who might have gone through it. They motivate you more than people just trying to say kind words because sometimes that’s just not enough when something’s severe."
Connecting with people who understand what you’re going through can have a huge impact. Before setting up the foundation, Piper says, "I’d never met anyone else who was burned," and now, she adds with a slight chuckle, "I can look at my phone and say I’ve got more people who have got burns than people who haven’t. It’s become my normal – something that’s meant to make me feel physically different doesn’t feel that different because of this network."
Piper was reminded of the importance of being connected with peop,le who understand when she met The Bluetits, a group of women who go open water swimming together every day. Many are suffering from illnesses like cancer, and Piper saw how swimming in the freezing waters helped them let their guard down and talk about some of the issues they wouldn’t normally.
"These women all have their own problems, they’re all unwell, and yet they’re all there for each other," she says. "It really highlighted for me that you can’t take some things away, you can’t change things like cancer or chemo, but you can actually be there for each other, and that does make a big difference."
"Sometimes we fear tragedy or dark times, but the women I met swimming had made brilliant friends in quite difficult times in their life. When they go through these times and it comes to an end, they’ve still got those friendships," adds Piper. "If you’re widening your network and making lifelong friends, that’s a real positive."
When asked about her enduringly optimistic outlook, Piper says: "I’d like to think it has helped me – even if sometimes you don’t believe it and you’re faking it, being positive only breeds more positivity."
She wants talking about, and taking care of your mental health "to be normalised," and on a personal level, says one of the best things she does for her mental health is journalling. "I’m very visual, I actually journal quite a lot which is probably quite retro for millennials," she notes. "I try not to be on my phone too much, so I put proper pen to paper. "
"You can look back and read your journal and see the patterns of when things go downhill and see what happened," she says, adding with a laugh. "Or you can look back at your journal from your teen years and cringe!"
Katie Piper joined The Bluetits to launch #InMyCorner with AXA PPP healthcare, which celebrates everyday heroes. To win a holiday in Mauritius nominate someone in your corner and tag #InMyCorner on Instagram or Twitter. T&Cs can be found here.