June 12, 2013

Paul BrookThere are three things everyone should know about depression:

  1. Depression is not the same as feeling depressed. Feeling depressed – like feeling sad or grumpy – is a mood. Depression is an illness.
  2. Depression is not a choice, any more than other illnesses or diseases are. Nobody would decide to have depression.
  3. Anyone can experience depression. You can’t look round and spot the kind of person who ‘gets’ it.

A friend once said to me – when I told her I was taking antidepressants – “oh Paul, but you’re not the type”.

So what ‘type’ is meant to have depression?

So what ‘type’ is meant to have depression? Is it a lifestyle choice for a particular breed of moping misery guts?

No, of course it isn’t. The whole notion of ‘choosing’ to have depression is preposterous. But that idea is – incredibly – still widely held, and kept alive by phrases like ‘What have they got to be depressed about?’, ‘Everyone’s sad sometimes – get over it’, and ‘Man up’. People who say these things have no idea what they are talking about.

One in four people will suffer from a mental health problem – depression being one of the most common – in any one year. Unless you know a remarkably small number of people, this means that several people you know either have, or have had, a problem with their mental health. Think you can spot them?

Men are not always great at talking about how they feel. When I was first diagnosed with depression, I didn’t want to talk about it either. I kept it hidden and obviously managed to do so very effectively. A family who ran a local sandwich shop called me ‘Smiler’ because I was ‘always smiling’. They only saw me for five minutes a day, when I was buying something for lunch, at my best time of day. They weren’t to know I would be walking back to my desk wishing I didn’t exist.

I thought that if I told people... they might think I was weak

I thought that if I told people about my illness they would draw certain conclusions about me – that I couldn’t do my job as well as I used to, for example. I didn’t want them to know I had to take tablets because I was too stressed to cope with everything life was throwing at me. They might think I was weak.

Actually, I’d been coping incredibly well for months and years, balancing a busy job with a hectic and demanding family life, as a father of two young children getting a pitiful amount of sleep. It gradually caught up with me.

Dr Tim Cantopher, in his brilliant book Depressive Illness: The Curse of the Strong, describes stress-related depression as a blown fuse. You overload your body and brain until something inside goes bang. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of time and treatment to repair that damage.

The ignorance and stigma surrounding mental illness persist

The ignorance and stigma surrounding mental illness persist. Some comments, like my friend’s, are not meant maliciously. It’s just a case of people not understanding depression because they haven’t been through it themselves. Others delight in their ignorance and enjoy belittling those who are courageous enough to talk openly about their experiences.

This playground bully mentality festers among the male population – that desire to show how tough you are, how strong you are, how brave you are. You want to see those qualities? Look at someone who’s gone through depression – that’s what they need to get through each day.

You could be young or old, black or white, gay or straight, big or small; a boxer, footballer, actor, rock star, plumber, joiner, journalist, manager, truck driver, artist, fisherman, builder, pub landlord – whatever. Depression isn’t picky.

Let’s not be ‘strong, silent types’. Let’s show our strength and courage by standing up to this crippling illness and fighting the stigma.

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