Social anxiety disorder goes beyond feeling awkward in social settings, or being fearful in public settings – it’s a debilitating state that can negatively impact a person’s daily life. Growing up requires constant social interaction, performing well in school, and managing the complexities of being a teenager in a connected world.
Gemma Henry, who has severe social anxiety disorder and left school early, turned to jewellery making. From her family home in Athlone she runs a thriving small business called Silver River Gems, which enables her to create and sell some of the most beautiful intricate jewellery.
Social anxiety has greatly affected Gemma’s education and physical health.
In the year that she was due to sit the Junior Certificate, her anxiety peaked and physically manifested in the form of migraine headaches. She came close to completely blacking out on a few occasions, with her vision blurring. It was one of the scariest times in her life. Gemma was then referred to the child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) by her doctor.
“Eventually, I gave up fighting to get to school every day and even though I enjoyed school, I left with no second-level qualifications. Many people suffering from anxiety are perfectionists. I would worry excessively if I believed my schoolwork wasn’t up to standard. Just the mention of exams sent my head spinning and made me feel nauseous. My health condition has had a devastating effect on my social life. I was very isolated during my teenage years. It was very uncomfortable to be around other people and I had panic attacks often. Whenever I was greeted by others or asked questions by teachers, I would become utterly speechless. Although I encountered some very caring people, I just couldn’t cope, and I couldn’t make friends.”
In the early stages, it was also very frustrating for Gemma because not everyone understood her condition. “The effects of a physical injury are visible, but the effects of one’s inner suffering is not as apparent, which makes it less credible to many sceptics. There is a stigma attached to mental health, but thankfully this is improving.”
The majority of people with social anxiety lack confidence in themselves. For as long as she can remember, Gemma has been creating things and has dabbled in many areas of the visual arts. In addition to making jewellery, she enjoys drawing, ceramics, crocheting, photography and making props and models.
“I like solving problems and have recently developed a passion for the engineering side of creative processes.”
Having finished school, Gemma needed a pastime. On YouTube, she discovered wire art, which led to her making jewellery with wire. She purchased the basic tools and equipment needed. It was important to her to be able to source her materials in Ireland.
“Inspiration can come from many sources, but I particularly like nature for its inspiring power. Above all else, I am a creature of the sea! I have long been enchanted by the pebbly beaches and colourful rock pools of the Wild Atlantic Way. I live on a hill overlooking the River Shannon and this view would be inspirational for any artist. It is also the inspiration behind the name of my business, Silver River Gems.”
Gemma enjoys the more intricate and challenging projects because it makes the end result that much more rewarding. “The process is relaxing and interesting to me. Reading positive reviews from my customers also boosts my confidence.”
She regularly posts online tutorials called ‘Instructables’ which is actually a rather time-consuming process. For every instructable, Gemma takes step-by-step pictures of herself making jewellery together with detailed instructions for the viewer. Having the opportunity to share her art with other prospective jewellery makers, however, is very fulfilling for her.
Gemma’s well-being has benefited greatly from having her own business. As a result, she has a sense of purpose, which propels her forward in life. It occupies her thoughts and time. Her work is improving, and that has improved her self-confidence.
“Silver River Gems seems to be doing well and improving steadily. The period in the lead up to Christmas last year saw a huge spike in sales. I actually found it difficult to keep up with all the orders that were being placed! After the festive season, sales fell for a while. The Fort in Shannonbridge offered to display my jewellery in their restaurant and in their Clonmacnoise Coffee Shop during the summer season. Business seems to be going well. Organised Christmas shoppers, from every corner of the globe, have started placing their orders early this year.”
Gemma’s business has given her the confidence to put herself out there on her own terms. Navigating social media is difficult because it can seem like a minefield. Getting noticed in a sea of other businesses is very difficult, especially for those with much more resources and a more established following. But she has meticulously mastered platforms such as Instagram and Facebook.
Best sellers and the future
“My collection of Christmas earrings and necklaces has been my number one seller. During the Christmas season, people are swept away by the challenge of searching for stocking fillers and trinkets. In addition, I try my best to deliver my products within two to five business days. Customers appreciate that. I also offer very affordable jewellery, so anyone on a budget will be able to afford it.”
Gemma is working on some new designs that will hopefully appeal to those looking for something unique and affordable for Christmas. The idea of attending a few Christmas markets has also crossed her mind. But, rather than her selling her goods from a stand, Gemma plans to rope another family member into the process. “I will fade into the background while they flog my wares!”.
Her goal is to expand into different types of jewellery and to make use of different materials once the Christmas madness dies down. Most of her pieces are currently necklaces and earrings. “It would also be nice to improve my skills by attending some workshops, but that will depend on how I deal with my anxiety, as I still find group settings intimidating.”
Talking to her occupational therapist gave Gemma the push she needed to start her business. “It was she who coaxed me out of my shell, pointed me in the right direction, and cajoled me into showcasing my creations. So, my advice would be to seek support, whether from family, professionals, or both. Throughout my journey, my family has been a pillar of strength for me, supporting me every step of the way, helping me to believe in myself. It is easy to get discouraged when getting started. I found ShopInIreland.ie to be a very useful platform. You are not competing with millions of other sellers, and there is a great support network in place. You will receive a lot of encouragement from the other vendors.”
Researchers are not certain why some people are affected by social anxiety disorder, but it may be related to genetics, environment, biological factors, the brain, and society. Psychotherapy can help a person to cope with the world they fear and themselves, even though it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint the exact root cause of the condition.
Like many makers, Gemma enjoys creating at home and is grateful to be able to sell her jewellery online. Silver River Gems has given Gemma the ability to pursue her dreams without triggering or worsening her anxiety symptoms. In my book, that makes her priceless.
This article was published in the Westmeath Independent 03/11/21.