Let’s Talk About Depression
I’m talking about depression and not photography here because, as you’ve no doubt noticed, it’s in the news a lot right now after a pilot crashed his plane, killing all passengers and crew. He had a medical history that included this illness. The media has concluded that this means depression is to blame for his choice to commit mass murder.
The headlines do nothing to help people with depression to get the help they need. So, even if the papers were right in their conclusions, they are wilfully adding to the problems instead of trying to solve them. But I’m also not convinced that mass murder can be explained by making depression even more of a stigma than it already is. And I’m not convinced that depression makes you homicidal – the facts just don’t support that conclusion.
I’ve suffered depression and anxiety at some points in my life. I have accepted the fact that, while I may be able to live the rest of my life free from these illnesses, I also might find that they are illnesses I have to live with permanently. Like having asthma, or diabetes.
I’m speaking as simply and as clearly as I can about this, and I’m openly acknowledging the illnesses I faced because I believe the stigma has to change in order for us as a society to better manage these illnesses.
It’s probably the biggest change that would improve the lives of those suffering with mental illness and all the people around those who are ill. This post may not be read by many, but I hope it helps those who do see it. I’ve spoken briefly about in public spaces before – on a separate casual little blog I keep for my cat so her old family can stay in touch with her, and on my personal Facebook profile, where a friend who was also facing similar problems reached out to me and I was humbled to be able to help him as a result of being open about this.
But that isn’t enough. We’re still evidently a long way off really changing perceptions. So here are some things I have learned about depression, from my own experiences of it and from my awareness of it in others. You might find some points more applicable to your experiences than others. But that’s one problem with depression in my opinion – it isn’t like having a broken leg, where there is often one treatment that works pretty equally for everyone who presents with the injury; it is more like every case of depression being different in its cause and best treatment. There is a need to treat the individual, not the illness, that really matters here.
1) Depression and anxiety often sneak up on you.
My first diagnosis of depression came when I was in my early 20s, shortly after my father had passed away after more than a decade living with a terminal illness. In addition to this, my brother had attacked me and, in choosing to report this to the police, my family as a whole were put under a lot more stress than the already intense grief we all felt. As a result, I felt very isolated. Having been my father’s main care giver while he was alive, I suddenly felt very isolated given what had happened. It started with insomnia, and my choice to shut myself off further from a family who I felt didn’t understand me. I wasn’t able to see that it was difficult for them to support me with standing up to the domestic abuse I faced from my brother because they were grieving heavily themselves. Instead, I saw it as a further abandonment on top of my father leaving.
Eventually, the insomnia gave way to not eating, then drinking too excessively and, finally, to barely being able to shower every day or even get out of bed. I was at a point where I was bursting into tears uncontrollably for no apparent reason when doing simple tasks like boiling the kettle. Still, I tried to solider on for a couple of weeks before seeing my GP.
When I did see them, I still said I wasn’t sure if it was depression, but could I please try some anti-depressants to stop me crying. We worked together, and I came to the realisation that I was depressed.
In my case, having concrete reasons I could point to as an environmental cause for my depression really helped me come to terms with it. That said, this wasn’t the first stressful period in my life. Since the age of 10, I had faced a seemingly never-ending series of highly stressful events including, but not limited to several racist attacks on myself and my family (including an attempt to firebomb my home by a local youth); my brother being in and out of trouble with the law at every turn; the pressure of being at Oxford University for 3 years studying PPE while my brother was in prison for GBH (I was keenly aware of the pressure this must have put on my family, to have two siblings institutionalised simultaneously but at completely opposite ends of the institutional spectrum); a major car crash where a young family friend had died (I’d had to watch her die and then give evidence at a trial about it); a terminally ill father; and various other major stresses.
Throughout it all, I kept saying, “I’m okay.” People would show concern, and I would say, “I’m okay.” Until one day I wasn’t.
I’d got so used to saying I was okay that it was incredibly difficult to accept otherwise by the time I’d started to really suffer.
For some people, there may be no Big Cause to point to. Either way, my experience of talking with others is that depression and anxiety can really sneak up on you, without you noticing until it has become a major problem in itself. For me, I’d joke about how my depression was really just a rational response to an extremely irrational set of circumstances. But I fought against the idea that I was depressed until long after it had started to affect my life.
A big step in learning to live with the possibility of depression (and it a possibility for all of us) is being able to spot your own warning signs that something isn’t right in your world, and to be able to identify the behaviours you personally have that compound your problems. Which brings us on to this…
2) Depression and anxiety can be compounded by life-choices we make in response to them
In my case, I know I am much more likely to drink to excess when I am depressed. Fortunately, I tend to be a generally happy, well-behaved drunk even when I’m going through a bout of depression. But it still doesn’t mean it is a good choice for me to make. I have learned to notice my depression and try to avoid drinking when I feel like I’m going through dark times. It’s hard enough getting out of bed in the morning when your illness has drained you of every ounce of energy. Having a hangover on top of that just compounds things. It also exacerbates my sleep problems, which then affects my entire schedule. If anything, I’m better off having no alcohol, having some early nights, and putting a routine in place that helps me get to sleep (e.g. listening to music while having a hot bath right before bed). You might find it worthwhile to look at the behaviours you choose that make it even harder for you to function with your illness.
3) People will judge you for having a mental illness. But the people who judge you badly for it are the kind of people you should remove from your life.
While suffering depression, I’ve run a photography business, gone on tour, rigged the lights at the Royal Albert Hall, got a 2:1 from Oxford in PPE, managed a major educational project for the country’s most prominent photography gallery, learned to snowboard, travelled the world, helped others who are experiencing depression, worked in Westminster for Labour MPs while also doing additional campaign work during the Deputy Leadership campaign and serving on the executive board of the youth arm of a think tank, and got headhunted for the next job I did, which was working as a researcher at a major university. There are probably lots of other things I could add to this list, but do I really need to?
Suffice it to say that while depression can be immensely debilitating, it doesn’t always have to be. A major factor in preventing it from becoming debilitating is being able to be open with those around you about what you’re going through, and having your illness understood. It helps give you the emotional energy to keep on going.
Some people however, for a variety of reasons, refuse to be supportive. Knowing who these people are just gives you a chance to either cut them out of your life, or find ways to live that you mean you have to deal with those individuals a lot less.
4) Depression and anxiety needn’t mean you are suicidal. And certainly doesn’t mean you’re homicidal.
I’ve never felt homicidal, whether suffering from depression or not. I’ve also never felt suicidal. Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to think that if things are so bad that they couldn’t get any worse and that my life is a waste (part of how my depression is like to live with), I don’t see why another 24 hours of existence will make it any worse. By attempting suicide, to my mind, you’re not attempting to stop the pain, but rather attempting to close the door on the possibility of recovery and better times.
I don’t mean any disrespect here to anyone who has considered suicide. I’m explaining, not accusing here. I’m just trying to articulate the personal reasoning I have about suicide, which is why I’ve been able to honestly tick “never” when it comes to being asked if I’ve ever felt suicidal on the question sheets they make you do for calculating depression scores.
Just to play a thought experiment here, if I was severely depressed, would I want to be in charge of flying a plane? Probably not. But then my condition would probably be noticeable to others. That said, I’m way more likely to hide my depression if being a pilot had been my one life-long dream. I would probably be pretty scared that I would lose my job and be humiliated, instead of feeling I’d be given time-off with my career and reputation still kept intact. So I’d probably be more likely to keep silent about whatever I was going through.
To whatever extent that depression might have caused the Germanwings pilot to crash his plane, when we look more closely at things, it’s really the entrenched negative perceptions around depression that caused his behaviour than the depression itself. You know, that entrenched negative perception that the newspapers have only reinforced by becoming hysterical about how someone with a mental health problem was trusted to do anything other than wipe their own arse. Thanks, guys.
5) Even if I have to live with this forever, I’m in good company.
I have serious respect for people like Alistair Campbell who openly talk about their experiences with mental health illnesses. He’s inspiring in the sense that I feel less alone knowing how he has succeeded despite going through similar experiences to myself. It makes me feel like I’m not delusional for expecting to live a full and rewarding life despite my illness. Other people have also inspired me in this way, including a tutor from my Oxford days who has been so openly casual about his own depression despite working in mental health treating other people who have these illnesses, that it made me wonder why I wasn’t so comfortable doing the same thing. We have prime ministers and presidents, famous actors and musicians, visual artists, writers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, soldiers, and many more professions on the list of “has suffered depression at some point in their lives.” In short, if you stopped all these people from continuing in their careers, we’d have lost some massive contributions to society from some truly amazing contributors.
6) You don’t need to be an expert to talk to someone about their depression or anxiety
Most of us don’t respond well to being told to, “pull yourself together”. Some of us really don’t respond well to being forced to read the latest article on HuffPost about the issues we’re living, or being handed the number for MIND or the Samaritans and told to get on with it. I’d suggest starting the conversation by focussing on the individual and getting them to describe how they are interpreting their life at the moment. From there, don’t just tell them they’re wrong or claim you can prove it. I’d suggest it is better instead to help them come up with alternative plausible interpretations for their experiences. One aspect of the experience of depression is not being able to think of those alternatives for yourself, either due to a lack of energy, or a fixation on the most negative interpretation. But being encouraged to read the world differently can help someone suffering with mental health illness to accept that they could see things differently.
I’m no expert on mental health myself. All I have are my own experiences and my own vested interest in understanding the topic. I sometimes feel like I’m saying or doing the wrong thing when trying to help others. I frequently wonder if there is more I could do. But I’m trying, and I’m getting better at being able to help others each time I try to do it. It’s okay to fall short of being perfect about this, but please don’t shy away from being honest and compassionate about it. Otherwise, we’ll never get any progress in public understanding of this issue.
7) Taking on extra responsibility for others can help pull you out of a depressive episode
I mentioned having adopted a cat at the start of this post. When we adopted Frankie, I was suffering an episode of deep depression. It was one factor I considered in deciding whether adopting her would give her the best quality of life. I’m glad we decided it could work. It turned out that she helped me just as much as I’ve helped her. Being able to focus on the needs of this cat meant I was spending some time focussing on the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of someone else. It helped pull me out of the extreme introversion that can categorise some depressive episodes. In my case, it helped that she was a cat and couldn’t communicate with me verbally to express her needs. So I had to put extra effort into understanding her needs and providing for them. And I had to do that knowing she might not show me much appreciation or understanding in return.
But by focussing on her needs, I started finding my way back into being able to deal with the world outside my own head. She was a better form of treatment for me at that point in time than any medication or counselling could have been. Without me planning it, she helped me find my way out of that episode. I’ll forever be deeply grateful to her for that.
The same thing goes for the projects I work on, which are mostly collaborative – working on a photography job where I’m trying to build a visual language for someone else’s goals really helps me avoid dwelling too much on the negativity I’m experiencing in my life. It gives me something to focus on that stops me feeling like everything is hopeless. Having something like that is extremely therapeutic. Sometimes, taking time off can just make the situation worse – cutting you off from opportunities to recover from your depression and making the situation much worse.
8) Even small gestures can make a huge difference
As noted at the top of this post, I made a short post on my Facebook profile about my own depression and anxiety. It wasn’t an attempt to campaign and wasn’t asking people to tweet a certain hashtag, take a selfie in aid of illness, or anything else that is fashionable on social media these days. But it helped a friend who had been suffering with similar problems to my own. That was enough for one day. Other times, I’ve been so humbled by the understanding responses of others when I’ve explained that I’m going through a lot at that time, and their understanding helps give me the energy to keep active. Big campaigns are hugely important in building awareness, changing perceptions, and they can be hugely effective. But don’t wait for the next t-shirt campaign to come around. Live your life by the beliefs that mental illness can affect any of us, that it doesn’t mean the person is weak, that it doesn’t mean the person can’t function at all within society, and that it deserves compassion and understanding. Then live your life by those beliefs, in the small gestures even more so than the big ones. What may seem like a small throwaway comment made at work, or at the pub, could have a hugely positive effect on your colleague, relative, or friend who is going through things you have no idea about.
On the other hand, if that throwaway comment belittles mental health conditions, congratulations, because you’ve just added to their anxiety and fears.