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Why Nadiya Hussain hates the term ‘mental health issues’

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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“It covers everything up and I don’t think that’s OK.”

She won our hearts as the brilliant but humble winner of The Great British Bake Off in 2015, and went on to become a much-loved TV presenter, author and cook. As if that wasn’t enough, she even baked the Queen’s 90th birthday cake.

And now, Nadiya Hussain is championing mental health, by working to open up the conversation around panic disorder, which she was diagnosed with as a teenager.

“I’ve had anxiety for as long as I can remember,” Hussain told Stylist’s editor-in-chief, Lisa Smosarski, on stage at Stylist Live. “I think one of the hardest things as a grownup is to admit that you’re not coping and you’re not well. When I got married I didn’t tell my husband about my panic disorder.

“When you carry something like that around with you, just admitting it means you’re saying you’re not perfect – and we all want to seem like we have everything together on the outside.”

“We all want to seem like we have everything together on the outside”: Nadiya Hussain

While wanting to appear perfect is something we’re all susceptible to, Hussain wants to break down the stigma surrounding mental health, to enable us all to recognise when we’re struggling, and seek the right help – rather than put on a front, and pretend that we’re fine. 

Of course, part of this process involves using the right terminology to describe different illnesses, and with that in mind there is one particular term that Hussain is categorically not on board with.

“I hate the term ‘mental health issues’,” she said. “It’s just a blanket term for lots of illnesses, but they’re very specific. The term covers everything up and I don’t think that’s OK. 

“It wasn’t always easy growing up in the community that I had, but mental health is much bigger than just one term. A lot of people in my community are first generation British, so how can I expect them to understand? No one would think ‘this person needs to see a medical professional’.”

It hasn’t always been easy for Hussain to speak so honestly about her mental health; she recalled thinking, “if I talk about it out loud, is someone going to take my kids away from me?” But she knows that she is a role model to lots of young women, and she understands the power of her own voice.

“I didn’t see people like me in the mainstream media when I was growing up,” she said. “I didn’t see Muslim women or brown women on TV, women I could look at and say, ‘yes, I relate to her’.

“So I understand the importance of doing this job and being honest. When I was growing up, mental health was very much a taboo subject. But we need to open the dialogue and we need to talk about it.”

And it is only in the last three years, since her ascent to fame, that the majority of Hussain’s family have even found out about her panic disorder.

“You become a really good liar; I never admitted that I had a problem,” she said. “I’m one of six kids, and four of us have anxiety, while two of us don’t. We only realised that we all have panic disorder over the last few years.”

Now, Hussain has made some peace with her anxiety.

“It’s not been easy, but I’ve accepted that this is something that isn’t going to go away,” she said. “I don’t even know who I’d be without it.”

Stylist Live, our festival of inspiration, is running from 9-11 November at London Olympia. You can find out more, and buy tickets, here

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Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Features Editor at Stylist

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