When David Hawkins suffered his first panic attack two years ago, he thought it was a heart attack.

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Seized by a spasm tensing every muscle in his body, the Tesco manager was at work when he fell to the floor, curled up and shaking in agony.

“It was an immense pain,” said David, 37. “I couldn’t believe that it was a panic attack.

“It was such an intense physical reaction to something that was within me.”

With help, father-of-two David began to come to terms with his condition, and understand it, learning to recognise what triggered an attack.

“I began to understand how to move away from them, and almost distract myself from them.”

With support from his family, including wife Debbie, son Jacob and daughter Grace, six, who learned how to help during his attacks, David armed himself with the tools to cope.

He said: “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me in the worst possible way, because it forced me to make decisions about my life.”

That included a career change to train as a social worker – something that becoming a Voluntary Norfolk mental health befriender has helped him with.

David and his client, who has schizophrenia, meet up every couple of weeks to see a film, go for a meal or share their interest in geocaching.

“He’s so used to having these professional people around him. It’s good I can be there as someone just to talk to him normally.

“He had become very isolated, so we have been working to get him out and about a bit more.”

David’s experiences and subsequent work have helped him understand some of the ways – visible and invisible – people can be affected by mental illness.

“It’s opened my eyes to what goes on out there which I probably dismissed before,” he said.

“I don’t see him as someone with a mental health problem. He is an equal.”

David, who lives in Hethersett, hopes to complete his career change by qualifying as a social worker next year, but he has already found his openness about his struggles have allowed others to speak of their own difficulties.

“There’s a lot going on in people’s lives that you don’t find out about until you talk about it.

“I would have dismissed it before – it would have been ‘pull yourself together and crack on’.”

“I’ve had friends I’ve known for many years who’ve shared their stories with me.”

That “mind-blowing” reaction has hardened David’s opinion that more needs to be done to make people aware of mental health.

“It was frightening. But it makes you realise how many people are affected,” he said.

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