The people making a difference: the mental health campaigner on the truth about personality disorders | Life and style
Katja Pavlovna doesn’t think any mental illness is sexy, of course. But her mental health initiative, Sorry My Mental Illness Isn’t Sexy Enough For You, addresses a very real issue, namely the way some conditions carry a greater stigma than others.
“When we think about mental health,” says Pavlovna, “we often think depression, anxiety, PTSD or bipolar disorder. But have you ever talked to someone about schizotypal personality disorder?”
Pavlovna, 34, a language teacher from the West Midlands, founded the project in 2021, shortly after being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD). “I set it up with my friend Kay Garbett, who also has a personality disorder,” she says. “We had numerous conversations about the way that if you Google ‘personality disorder’, you get loads of information, but few stories about lived experience. We set up the project to give a voice to people who don’t normally have one.”
Their website shares anonymous first-person testimony from people all over the world living with a mental illness. At first, people in their social circle shared their experiences but now, most of their stories come in through social media.
It was tough at first, says Pavlovna. “People didn’t want to talk to us. Most representation of serious mental illness is really negative and reinforces harmful stereotypes.” But when users saw honest and accurate reflections of the lived reality of mental health conditions, the submissions started flooding in. Pavlovna and Garbett often discovered conditions they had never heard about.
It took Pavlovna six years to be diagnosed with BPD. “I am what you would probably describe as high-functioning,” she says. “I have a family. I work full-time. It’s hard, unless you know me well, to know something’s not right. I’d be put on a waiting list to be referred somewhere, go for my appointment and be told, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you’.”
At first, she was scared that her diagnosis would stop her doing the job she loved. But by reading accounts of living with BPD, she realised that it was a completely manageable condition.
“You can have a relatively normal life with a personality disorder,” Pavlovna says. “That really put my mind at rest.” In fact, the diagnosis has been helpful at work. “It meant I could communicate what was wrong to other people, and make adjustments.”
Sorry My Mental Illness Isn’t Sexy Enough For You offers information and reassurance to others who might be anxious about their diagnosis. “Knowledge is power,” says Pavlovna. “And a personal resource is so helpful. I related much more to people sharing their own experiences than to NHS guidelines.”
Pavlovna welcomes submissions from people with all mental health conditions, even the most stigmatised and taboo. “This is about awareness,” she says. “We’re not saying everyone with a personality disorder is perfect. It’s about acknowledging how damaging stigma can be, and how it stops people seeking help.”
“Katja deserves to be recognised for her tireless work,” says co-founder Garbett. “She has given a voice to some of the most discriminated-against people and helped educate the world. It has been a privilege to work alongside her and share her passion for making the world a less hate-filled place.”
Pavlovna has seen attitudes change. “I went to school in the early 2000s,” she recalls, “and mental health then wasn’t even a discussion.” But there is still work to do. “When we talk about mental health, the conversation veers towards general wellbeing. People have this idea that mental illnesses are quite fixable, but that’s not always the case.”
She spends around 10 hours a week editing and uploading personal testimony on to the site, and managing its Instagram page. It’s time-consuming, but worth it. “I get messages saying, ‘Thank you for bringing awareness to my personality disorder’. And messages from people in relationships with people with personality disorders, saying that it’s given them a different perspective.”
For her treat, Pavlovna suggests a pair of shoes from her favourite designer, Irregular Choice. “I tend to be quite a bold and eccentric dresser,” she tells me. She has her eye on a pair of multicoloured, glittery boots covered in stars.
The brand sends her a voucher, which she spends on the boots, which she’s thrilled with. Her style icon is the designer Zandra Rhodes, “because she doesn’t dress to please anyone, or conform to age expectations.”
The boots may be a little bit too full-on for work, Pavlovna admits. “As much as I’d love to wear them to school, I may have to save them for weekends.”