After suffering from health anxiety from the age of 6, Jenny Chesworth, 34, founded the Be Happy Hub, a mental health resource centre for children in the UK.
“I’m dying!” Jenny shouted at the ambulance crew as she struggled to catch her breath. It was 1994 and she had just had her first panic attack at just six years old. The paramedics reassured her that she wasn’t dying, and then once she had calmed, they left.
This was the start of a lifelong mental illness that Jenny feels could have been prevented should she have received prompt mental health support after her first attack.
“My mum and dad did everything they could at the time,” Jenny said. “They took me to every doctor possible and I was told I had everything from hypochondria to an eating disorder. I still didn’t receive any support.”
Jenny’s mental health struggles eventually came to a breaking point in her late 20s. As a result, she would go on to create a mental health resource Hub which is now helping thousands of children across the UK.
Back then, Jenny was actually suffering from health anxiety and a severe phobia of death, it would take her 22 years to get a diagnosis. She says: “It was a really awful time. I would try and stay awake for as long as possible at night because I was terrified if I closed my eyes I’d die. I’d make my mum sit on the bed with me every single night until I fell asleep. If I woke up when she wasn’t there, I’d write notes to my parents telling them I loved them and hide them under my pillow. I can’t imagine how they must have felt but they had no idea what was wrong and back then mental health wasn’t as understood or accepted as it is now. “
Fast forward to her early 20s and Jenny had learnt how to hide her anxiety extremely well. She started work in a very corporate role and soon learned that mental health wasn’t accepted in the workplace. She said: “I presented myself as someone who was confident, business savvy and outgoing, but every night I was panicking and crying, wondering how long I could keep it up.”
After a while, her mental health deteriorated and she moved on to a less corporate but still professional role. It was at this point that she found herself pregnant with her son.
Jenny says: “I had so far, somehow, managed to keep this anxiety hidden in public and at work, constantly pushing thoughts away but each night falling apart. When I got pregnant, I didn’t account for the hormonal effects of pregnancy and giving birth. It was then that the anxiety spiralled and overspilled from the safe little padlocked part of my brain I had kept it in.”
Jenny’s son Zach was born in August 2016 and this is when she began to spiral. “I completely lost control.” Jenny says, “I just realised how important my life now was to someone else and I became obsessed with looking for signs of illness in us both. It took over my life. I was constantly at the doctor’s begging them to check us over.”
At one point, Jenny had a panic attack on the side of a motorway and ended up in A&E. “I was in A&E a lot. I had every body part checked, no one ever thought it was mental because I was always saying that there was something physically wrong.”
Jenny’s breaking point came after kissing her son with a cold sore, she became convinced he was going to die from Herpes. “My partner had to physically stop me driving to A&E. It was at that point I started having thoughts of suicide, which is completely ironic for someone so terrified of death, I just couldn’t imagine living every day of my life this way and thought that ‘getting it over and done with’ was the only way out.”
Fortunately, Jenny booked an appointment with her GP and after 22 years was referred for mental health support and put on medication. It was there that she was diagnosed with health anxiety and general anxiety disorder. “I couldn’t believe it – I just couldn’t believe there was a name for how I was feeling.”
It was around this time that she stopped leaving the house altogether. The intrusive thoughts became too much and everything became a hazard. “Even just walking down the stairs would bring on a panic attack.” But Jenny was expected to return to work from maternity leave.
“I decided to tell my boss,” Jenny recalls, “After having a little cry in the bathroom, I went into the boardroom and broke down. She seemed really understanding and it felt like such a relief to have it out in the open.” But unfortunately, three weeks later, Jenny received a letter in the post terminating her employment. “They didn’t even ask me to come into the office, ” she said.
“Getting fired was actually the best thing that could have happened to me – although it certainly didn’t feel that way at the time!” Jenny said. A week after losing her job, Jenny applied for a job at a small, local mental health charity, “I told them I had anxiety in the interview,” she says “they offered me the job on the same day!”
Jenny started her new job at the same time she started therapy. “It was a challenge, but I was determined to take back control of my mind and get my life back on track.”
Jenny worked there for four years, retraining in mental health and creating support resources for adults and children across Lancashire. “I owe a lot to them. They were a huge part of my recovery. They let me have time off for therapy appointments, they even offered me free, private therapy. It was an amazingly supportive place to work.”
Working in mental health, Jenny really felt she had found her calling. But it wasn’t all plain sailing and there were further bumps in the road.
In 2020, at the start of the first lockdown and heavily pregnant with her second child, her now three-year-old son started with anxiety just as she had done 30 years before. “I spotted the signs straight away,” Jenny shared “He became scared to leave the house, screaming it wasn’t safe and every night I had to hold his hand as he went to sleep. It was all too familiar.”
Jenny started creating resources for him to use at home to help him explore his emotions and thoughts. She also started a course in children’s mental health so she could better understand how to support him. By September 2021, they had created over 100 resources together.
Jenny says, “I thought there must be other parents going through this. Feeling helpless about how to support their children. I knew from working in mental health that we were facing long wait times for support and that referrals were going up.” So Jenny decided to launch her resources as a low-cost, online subscription where parents could download and print them at home to use with their own children.
“What happened next was amazing,” exclaims Jenny. “The Be Happy Hub attracted not only parents but teachers, schools, professionals, grief counsellors, NHS psychologists and more. We now have a mix of parents, schools, and NHS clinicians using over 500 unique resources.”
Now, over a year later, Jenny’s resources have been featured in thousands of classrooms, are used by NHS Trusts and the Hub has been named the most valuable tool for ELSAs (emotional literacy support assistants). Recently Jenny has also brought on board her own registered clinician to be able to produce more support-based resources.
She continues “Over half of all mental illnesses are diagnosable before the age of 14. Yet, we don’t equip our children with the tools and knowledge to spot the signs or manage their emotions from an early age. We’re also currently dealing with a crisis in children’s mental health, which no one is talking about.”
“In some areas, wait times for professional support are up to three years and we have children who are self-harming being turned away for support. If we don’t help our children now, we are silently walking into a future epidemic of mental illness.”
Jenny often thinks about how different her life would have been had she received professional support after her first panic attack. “I wish I had been taught these tools and techniques when I was younger. Whilst my resources don’t replace professional support, they can work in tandem and definitely help young children to learn how to manage their thoughts and emotions at home. These are vital coping tools that will last a lifetime.”
Jenny shared “I really feel like if just one person said, this is what is happening to you, this is why and this is what you can do after that first panic attack, that would have been life-changing.”
Jenny now manages her anxiety extremely well and her son now 6, is thriving too. “He loves school, has joined a football team and is a very cool and confident character!” she concluded.