A WOMAN who suffered with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) all her life has been helping people around the world with her classes in making healing “inner child” dolls.

Last month, Maria Contreras, from Hove, spoke to The Argus about the trauma of losing her father when she was just three years old in her native Chile.

Carlos Contreras was one of the many victims who disappeared under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who seized power from the left-wing president Salvador Allende in 1973.

READ MORE: Hove woman's 'infinite grief' for her father, one of Chile's disappeared victims

The Pinochet regime had supporters of the Allende government tortured and killed and at least 1,000 people are still listed as missing.

To mark World Mental Health Day today, Maria wants to raise awareness about the coping mechanisms that helped her deal with a deep depression and anxiety she has suffered with since childhood.

The 46-year-old said: “As far back as I can remember, I just felt anxious and unsafe. The awful feelings started when I was really little, as young as two or three.

“It was an unsafe environment in Chile and I remember all the adults around me were very frightened.”

The Argus: Maria, right, with her brother Pablo as children in ChileMaria, right, with her brother Pablo as children in Chile

Maria came to England as a refugee with her mother, also called Maria, and her brother Pablo when she was six years old, and experienced alienation at school as she could not speak English.

She began counselling at the age of 14 but the trauma has affected her into adulthood and six years ago she started attending support groups in Brighton and Hove.

She said: “I used to do leadership training for businesses and I would put on this performance and this show, but the rest of the time I was crying and processing this trauma.

“I’ve known for a long time about how important it is to talk to that little girl inside of me.

“In psychology, the term ‘inner child’ refers to the child we once were – and if that child experienced a trauma, this part becomes compromised and affects you into adulthood.

“Later in life when my depression was at its worst, I asked myself: ‘What can I do about this?’ and an answer came from a very young part of me: ‘I want a doll’."

Maria, who has a degree in fashion design and has always loved sewing, had started to do textile projects with a friend from one of her support groups and discovered a book on how to upcycle old jumpers into wool toys. 

She said: “So I made myself a little cloth doll. Somehow it became this little being and it was a very restorative, magical moment.

"It makes sense because it's like a symbol of me and my inner child who was so lost. 

“It might not be for everyone but it was the most comforting thing I’ve ever done.”

The Argus: Maria ContrerasMaria Contreras

Maria started teaching doll making with videos on YouTube and has received messages of gratitude from people around the world who have found it has helped them in healing from childhood trauma.

She believes the need for self-comforting tools is “greater than ever” during the coronavirus pandemic.

Maria said: “The stigma around mental health is still there but actually lockdown has really helped this cause as it has become very common for people to say, ‘I need to do this for my mental health’, even if it’s just getting outside in the fresh air and going for a walk.

"It’s so important to do things which are mindful and slow - it could be anything from building something with your hands to writing in a journal - just as long as it's yours."

To watch Maria’s doll-making tutorials, visit her website