I have lived with very serious, treatment resistant depression since 1994 - well the truth is, I suffered a continuous 7 year episode until I had neurosurgery in 2001 and then 5 years later I suffered a serious relapse..
I wrote a book about my first experience and it was published in 2005 (Life After Darkness). I am a normal person who just happens to be a doctor too and I experienced this awful depression when I should have been rejoicing that I had just been given a part time training post in A&E, allowing me more time to spend with my husband and 4 lovely children. Instead I found myself admitted to a psychiatric hospital, feeling suicidal and needing all the help I could get.
I wrote the book after my recovery to tackle the stigma of mental illness. I found that some of the nursing staff had not treated me well, some of the hospital doctors in the nearby general hospital where I was taken after self harm had not treated me well, friends had abandoned me and even some of my wider family had no idea how to talk to me about my illness, so it was just ignored. I came across some lovely psychiatric staff too and realised that they are stigmatised within the medical profession for working in psychiatry – something has to change!
I decided I would be open about my illness
I decided that when I returned to work (in the A&E where I had been taken as a self harming depressed patient) I would be open about my illness. I wasn’t sure what sort of response I would get and was worried about it but, nonetheless, did not want to have to lie. So when I was asked why I had had so much time out of medicine, I would tell the truth.
I was surprised that nearly everyone I talked to was interested in my response and wanted to talk more. It seemed that me being open literally broke down a barrier and people became more friendly. I found it hard at first, my heart used to pound, particularly when I wondered whether they had treated me when I was depressed. Slowly it became easier. My fear that people would think less of me when I talked about it weren’t realised.
I soon started teaching in the department on mental illness,
I soon started doing the teaching in the department on mental illness, giving myself as the example; many of the doctors I taught said it brought the whole subject into the open and that they gained insight into the whole area of self harm, saying things like ‘ I’ve never thought of it that way’. I also started to challenge those who did have negative attitudes towards the mentally ill. When my book came out, many of the staff bought it and told me how brave I was to write it.
However my relapse meant more time off work and another hospital admission. At least the church I was attending had had a seminar addressing mental illness, so I received support and friendship from people I hardly knew. Sadly this isn’t always the case and some churches positively ostracise those living with depression – this led me to writing yet another book (‘A Thorn In My Mind’) to tackle stigma within churches. How absurd that a faith that should be embracing the sick and the lonely, the rejected and the forlorn as Jesus did in his lifetime, should be so uneducated about mental illness.
I will not stop talking about my illness
However some good things are happening, there is now an excellent website for Christians called 'Mind and Soul', there are more people talking about their illnesses and more church leaders are understanding the fact that 1 in 4 of us will experience mental illness at some time in our lives. In medical practice the A&E departments have had more training in the needs of those with mental health problems or who have self harmed. But still work needs to be done.
I, for one, will not stop talking about my illness. It is hard to do so sometimes. I am vulnerable when I open myself up and misunderstanding seems all too easy. I like to be treated as a normal person, which I am, not as someone who needs to be pitied or tiptoed around.
Depression has no outward signs
I recently had an operation on my foot and have to wear a surgical boot as a result. It’s obvious – people on the tube ask me what’s happened and friends I know repeatedly express their concern. Yet, depression has no outward signs and is far harder to cope with. I still put on ‘a front’ when I suffer as I still come across unhelpful reactions. I’m fine talking about it when it’s over but when facing the hideous symptoms it can be incredibly lonely.
Once again I have had to start work after a long period away from medicine. Only last week, I was telling one of the young doctors that the reason I had time out was because I was depressed – all in the hearing of nurses and doctors in the coffee room. Her face betrayed surprise but she was interested and asked me questions about it and how it was for me coming back into work again.
Often people will open up to me about their experiences
I definitely feel it is better to come out with it straight away and to be positive about it. I don’t want to find myself giving excuses or being vague about the time off and leaving people to try and guess why it happened. I act like I’m not the slightest bit embarrassed and it seems to give people permission to not be embarrassed about speaking about it either.
In more private settings, I have found such conversations often give people the opportunity to talk about their own encounters with mental illness, whether it be themselves, relatives or friends who are the sufferers. When I am well, I feel good about myself and want to help anyone in this situation whatever their background, creed or nationality. When I am down, negative thinking has crept in and I am not so sure I am any help to anyone! But I do know talking about it, is good, so I will!