Towards the end of my degree, I had to take a break because I became so burnt out I could no longer cope, and anxiety that was normally well managed got out of control.
I was about to start my sign-off placement and also had a dissertation to write and part-time shifts to work to pay the bills. All this stress triggered migraines, which I was getting weekly at first. Then I had a cluster of three in three days. They left me in a totally exhausted and confused state and I had no choice but to stop.
Running to raise awareness
I had been considering starting a running challenge before my breakdown but I almost didn’t go through with it. In the end though I realised the fact I was going through a difficult time made it all the more important for me to do this, for my own wellbeing and also to hopefully provide hope and inspiration to other people in the same situation.
So in October last year, I began a challenge to run at least one mile every day for a year for the charity Mind to raise awareness and encourage people to talk about mental health.
I wear different unicorn horns to symbolise positivity and bravery and log each run on Instagram with selfies showing photos of my route and links to a sponsorship page. I also leave crochet hearts with messages of hope along some of my runs to reach out to others and let them know they’re not alone.
One foot in front of the other
Finding the time was the biggest issue when working 12-hour shifts on placements. I would get up extra early, or run after a long shift before crawling into bed.
I have had to go gently when unwell, slowing runs down to a crawling jog. I have tripped and cut open my hands after a migraine left me clumsy (I brushed myself off and kept going). I have layered up to brace against bad weather and retraced my footprints in snow.
It’s been a tough slog. It’s been worth every step
Suffering in silence
I’ve had depression in the past, for which I had medication and talking therapies, and I remember feeling totally isolated and alone. When I tried to talk to people around me, I was met with uncomfortable silence and distancing behaviour. So when asked what was wrong, I would respond with the non-specific “I’ve been unwell lately”.
The climate around mental health needs to change so that student nurses feel they can ask for help when they need it. I never want anyone else to feel they have to work through a mental health problem alone.
Channelling my inner unicorn
I picked the unicorn as it symbolises positivity, good self-esteem and being true to yourself. Unicorn imagery is linked to rainbows and being brave enough to show your “true colours”.
My Instagram username (@follow_that_unicorn_runner) was inspired by Lady Gaga’s Highway Unicorn song lyrics: “We can be strong, out on this lonely road…follow that unicorn, on the road to love”. I came across the song while planning the challenge, and became aware of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way foundation and her own campaigning for mental health awareness and support.
The unicorn horns also add a bright, light-hearted element to what is a very difficult and emotive subject, which I hope will encourage people to engage with what I’m doing. I make most of the unicorn horns using crochet techniques and by adapting costume pieces.
Looking back and moving forwards
I am now a third of the way through my unicorn run challenge and am so glad I’m doing it. The runs themselves give me a sense of achievement and the exercise helps me overcome feelings of anxiety.
My biggest achievement so far has been running the Cambridge Half Marathon in full unicorn costume in the memory of Lucy de Oliviera.
Lucy was a student nurse who took her own life in 2017 following a period of depression, which she felt she had to hide. Her mother Liz believes Lucy felt she could not ask for help because of the stigma around mental health and how she would have been perceived as a nurse.
You are not alone
Please remember to look after yourselves during your studies. Ask for help if you need it.
Don’t worry about looking weak or vulnerable; chances are the people you talk to will have been through something similar or know someone who has. One thing this challenge has taught me is that so many people are touched by mental health issues, directly or indirectly.
And finally remember: You are not alone.
Follow that unicorn
Since this piece was originally published in April, Katt has finished her challenge, without missing a single day!
You can look back over Katt’s journey on her Instagram page @follow_that_unicorn_runner and continue to make donations to Mind to support her challenge.
If you’re thinking of doing a similar challenge to Katt, or want to start running for your own wellbeing, make sure to consider safety as well.
Try to run in the light but, when this isn’t possible, wear day glow running clothing, reflective garments and running lights. When running in the dark, run along well-lit busy streets on pedestrian paths and ensure someone always knows where you are going and when you will be back.
If you or someone you know is affected by mental health issues, then please contact the RCN’s free counselling service. Also visit the RCN's Healthy workplace, healthy you pages.
The Mind website also has lots of information and support available.