First published Wednesday, August 13, 2014
This week the world has lost a brilliantly funny and talented actor who having battled with his demons, sometimes publicly, sometimes not, felt unable to continue to do so. Across mainstream media, social media and various other platforms there have been outpourings of grief, tributes, signposts to various organisations that can offer help, and also the flipside laden with seemingly heartless or ignorant comments, raising questions such as ‘what did he have to be depressed about?’ and ‘he was the funny guy, how could he do that?’.
It is truly heartbreaking that it takes the death of a high profile person, internationally renowned, to enable people to feel as though maybe, just maybe, they can step forward and whisper ‘I have depression – I know how he felt’. Stephen Fry has done much to raise awareness of mental illness by being open about the difficulties he faces. There are others who also stand up and be counted, finding the strength within to not only fight their own battle, but also to fight the stigma, ignorance and at times almost complete lack of support from those around them.
The topic of mental health is one that, at last is coming up more and more frequently in the media, and thanks to national organisations such as Mind, Time to Change, The Samaritans and their local branches and other groups, some of the stigma is being lifted. However, whilst education can help a great deal, it is very difficult for someone who has not experienced a mental health problem such as depression to understand how it feels, how it can completely rob you of all that you know, scare you, cripple you socially and physically, leave you desperate for someone to talk to yet unable to instigate the conversation. What makes it even harder to understand is that often a person who is battling with depression will seem to be strong, fun, engaging, energetic and capable, not someone who is sad, ‘down’, suicidal even.
I’ve been there. I’ve been sat on the floor in the corner scrunched up as small as I can make myself, with absolutely no idea what I’m doing there, why I’m there, or how to get up from there. I’ve stood at the sink doing the washing up, holding a kitchen knife in my hand wondering what it would be like to run the blade across my arm (I didn’t – but that particular moment burned itself through my fogged up, lost brain to make me realise that I needed to get some help).
My family have no idea that I hit that point, nor that I went to get help, that I’ve had counselling and now take a daily low dose anti-depressant. A very small handful of my colleagues are aware that I have had mental health issues. Interestingly, whilst my job is pressured and at times almost unbearably so, it has been the one constant that helped me through. The reasons and triggers for my depression are many and varied, and looking back over my life, I realise now that I’ve suffered with depressive episodes on and off for some years, but always done the ‘self talk’ thing, telling myself to ‘snap out of it’ and that I was ‘being stupid’.
When depression takes a hold you find yourself living your life on autopilot, and at times it feels like you’re standing outside it all looking in, completely detached from it, just going through the motions, putting on a show. Those you interact with on a regular and daily basis may not even notice that something isn’t ‘right’. Depression brings with it a defence mechanism that enables you to build a wall to hide behind, or a mask to wear, giving the impression to those around you that all is just fine thank you very much. The cruel irony of it is that in reality what a tiny little voice, buried deep inside is trying to say is ‘please help me, I need someone to talk to’.
That said it’s not always that simple. If you do manage to turn the volume on that voice up a little and make contact with someone, whether a friend, a gp, an anonymous person on the end of the helpline, depression twists your thinking in such a way that you still don’t feel that you should be bothering that person with your problems, believing those problems to be insignificant and not worth wasting someone’s time with. I remember sitting in the waiting room of the GP surgery having finally made an appointment to get some help thinking that I didn’t need to be there, and very nearly walking out. I’m glad I didn’t, and thanks to a friend texting me with the support I needed to keep me there, I did access help (the availability of that help however is massively under-resourced, with waiting lists that exceed months never mind weeks – but that’s another story).
There is much more I could add to this, and perhaps in time I will. I am extremely grateful that I have a few select friends who have provided me with a huge amount of support, that I met a GP who took time to listen me, who referred me for counselling, that the counsellor was superb, and that I have, just about, accepted that mental illness, depression in my case, arises from chemical imbalance in the brain, and isn’t just something that I ‘should snap out of’.
The incredibly sad loss of Robin Williams makes the news because of who he was and what he brought to the world. Every day there are folks who reach the same depths of despair and don’t know how to overcome it, having been pulled down so deeply that they can’t see any other way out. If you are suffering from depression and struggling to make sense of the world around you, please, ask for help, whether it is from a friend, Mind, The Samaritans or your GP or someone else. If you are approached by someone who is asking you for help, please don’t dismiss them, or tell them to snap out of it. The courage it has taken to make that contact is more than you can conceive. you don’t have to ‘fix’ them, there is no quick answer or solution, but you can listen, you can hold their hand, you can help them access professional support. Something as simple as a sit down and a chat over a cup of tea can be the first step to helping that person feel better.
As the Mind campaign doing the rounds on Facebook today says ‘It’s ok to ask for help’. It really is ok to ask for help, and if we can all extend kindness to one another instead of judging when you have no idea what someone is facing, we can all make a real difference.