Cast your mind back to your high school years. Did you spend your evenings curled up in bed, watching TED talks on YouTube with your cats? If you answered yes to this question you might be Shona Wills, a gal who grew up, and I quote, “obsessed” with TED talks. The great thing? These 18 minute clips about any topic you can imagine helped shape her into the kick-ass mental health advocate she is today.
But Shona’s journey to her work in mental health hasn’t always been a bed of cats and YouTube, a fact she speaks candidly about.
“When I was 14 I was diagnosed with chronic dysthymia and generalised anxiety disorder. I can never quite articulate what it felt like to live with these conditions on a daily basis… There was a lot of darkness and confusion and a multitude of unhealthy coping mechanisms involved in the two and a half years I was at my worst.”
All Shona knew was that she was struggling, that she couldn’t envision a future for herself and woke up every day not wanting to be alive. The catch? She led a seemingly charmed existence; she was a straight A student and a social butterfly.
“Living with these conditions has taught me so many things; most importantly, however, [is that] mental health issues don’t discriminate,” Shona says. “I was so baffled by how much shit I would get from people purely because they decided my circumstances didn’t equate to a mental health issue. I mean, what the heck, right?”
“You’re made to feel as though unless you have a sob story or troubled circumstance to go with your diagnosis, you’re not worth anyone’s time of day. As if battling with your mind every day isn’t already a confusing enough concept.”
But it’s this experience that drives her work with Headspace, a youth health initiative she’s been involved with since 2014. Having heard about the organisation through a school counselor, Shona approached the Youth Reference Group at Headspace Frankston with her ideas for change.
“It’s easy to brush off other people’s issues, to disregard people’s suffering, and to justify treating them like they’re being melodramatic. Compassion and empathy are some of the most powerful forces on this planet, and we all have access to them if we put aside our judgments and egos.”
So what’s Shona been up to lately? Try organising her very own TEDx event, a dream she’s harboured for years. Having applied for a license way back in 2015 (notorious as the year One Direction called it quits and we all debated whether the dress was blue and black or white and gold), Shona assembled a crack team after Year 12 and began to organise an event for early 2017.
“I contacted multiple people who I knew had a gift for public speaking and had inspired me with their courage, compassion and conviction in their everyday lives, and asked them to speak.”
And in true Shona fashion, the night was (you guessed it) a huge success.
“To this day, I am unable to articulate the amount of pride, love, magic and happiness that circulated the room on the night of the event. Everyone left feeling inspired and ready to start a conversation on ideas that matter. That’s exactly what I wanted to do.”
Oh yeah, and the chick is writing a bloody book. At eighteen years old. You read that right.
She explains it’s a work-in-progress that falls into the self-help/memoir genre, and catalogues her unique take on a heap of of conceptual ideas like success, faith, perfectionism and self-care. But how does an eighteen-year-old uni student get around to writing a book in between working a part-time job, spending time with friends and family, organising TEDx events, and working with a major health organisation?
“To be frank, I don’t really believe in balance,” Shona confesses. “All I do, is make sure I spend my day doing what I want to do, as opposed to what the world wants me to do. I go to university three days a week because I want to learn; I work in hospitality three nights a week because I want to support myself; I volunteer with numerous organisations because I’m passionate about making a change; I write and sing and meditate because it keeps me sane. Some weeks all of this looks balanced; most weeks it doesn’t.”
It helps that she has the ability to find magic anywhere, sourcing inspiration wherever she goes. Here’s a
short list of this inspiration’s inspirations:
- Elizabeth Gilbert
- Mariska Hargitay
- Virginia Woolf
- Martha Beck
- Roald Dahl
- Brene Brown
- Mitch Albom
- Ed Sheeran
- Meryl Streep
- Geraldine Brooks
- Oscar Wilde
- Close friends
- Her VCE English teacher
- Teachers in general
- Everyone at Headspace events, university, and work
- Her cats
And quotes. Shona loves quotes (just check her Instagram), and there’s a few that particularly motivate her. These include Elizabeth Gilbert’s contemplative ‘What is creative living? Any life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear’ and Elisabeth Elliot’s very sage ‘Don’t dig up in doubt what you planted in faith’.
But I think Shona herself can whip up the good stuff. For instance, why does she continue to advocate so fiercely and unapologetically? Why is she OK with the occasional “attention seeker” and “keyboard warrior” slur?
“Because somewhere out there, there could be a young Shona that just needs to hear someone say that it’s okay not to be okay – even if society tells you you’re supposed to be.” – Shona Wills, 2017