I can’t remember when I first heard the word ‘depression’. I expect it was in the context of weather. And, growing up in the nineties, ‘that’s mental’ was an expression of disbelief. So, despite a parent having experienced multiple episodes of mental ill health, it just wasn’t something we talked about at home. Or indeed at school. Or anywhere. If my brothers or I complained of feeling sad, we were told, “Cheer up! It might never happen.”
But then, when I hit my early twenties, it did happen. I didn’t have the words to describe my dark thoughts, my bleak moods or that hollow feeling of despair. Eventually I talked to my GP, who diagnosed me with depression. It felt like the end of the world. Why me? What should I do? Would this word – ‘depression’ – help my nearest and dearest understand why I couldn’t leave the house most days? What could they do to help?
I was put on a waiting list for CBT, but in the meantime I was left to stew in my shame. I’d never had a conversation about mental health before. Nobody I knew had told me they’d experienced anything vaguely similar. I remember feeling so alone, so scared and confused.
I certainly don’t blame my family or friends for our lack of communication about mental health. We are all a product of our times. However, I really struggled to find a way to talk about how I was feeling. I didn't understand enough about how the mind works, and I lacked the vocabulary that might have helped me open up to my nearest and dearest about my mental health condition. In those pre-smartphone days, I had very few means of filling this knowledge gap, especially when I was at my lowest.
Gradually, I recovered, mostly on my own. The CBT helped me challenge my low opinion of myself, and I managed to do some exercise, which began to restore my mood. Within a few months, I got better and returned to work and relative ‘normality’ (whatever that is).
I felt well for a good couple of years before things took a turn for the worse again. I recognised the symptoms of depression, but felt powerless to do anything about it. I struggled to talk to anyone, and again it took months for my mental health to return.
This pattern occurred several times in my late twenties: each time I recovered, I felt stronger and more certain that I had the tools to make sure I never let things get so bad again. Yet each time, I was wrong. With every episode of depression, the desperation felt deeper.
Then, seven months ago, within a matter of weeks, I went from being a high-performing, sporty, positive person to an extremely unwell 31-year-old who believed life was no longer worth living. I isolated myself, only managing the odd one-word WhatsApp to my mum or my best friend. As for my family and friends, they have only ever wanted to help, but very few have ever known how. How would they know? You see, when I am at my lowest, I don’t believe they can help. I don’t believe anyone can help. But the thing is, someone always can.
And this time around, I have totally changed my mind about the value of and my approach to speaking to people about my mental health and illness. Yes, it is important to let people in when you’re feeling down, and to stay in touch with people if you can. But fundamentally, the vital thing is for us all to have conversations about our mental health – when we are well. For it is then that we can best express ourselves, best understand and communicate our needs, and best relate to others. Through these frank conversations, the strongest safety nets are forged.
So that’s my plan. Open up now (that I’m better) about how bad things got, and may get again. Tell people explicitly how they can best support me, with specific practical examples, so we’re all prepared for whatever lies ahead. And – crucially – listen actively to those around me, letting them share their own experiences and fears.
It definitely helps when my family and friends initiate such conversations with me too. It shows me that they care, that they are comfortable speaking about deeper and darker matters, and it keeps a supportive channel of communication open (in good times and bad). I particularly appreciate questions like, “how are you feeling in yourself at the moment?”, “what's on your mind today?” and “how are you feeling about the day/week/month ahead?”.
There are plenty of resources out there to help develop these open conversations. My top tip for supporting friends with depression is to persevere, stay in touch to show you are thinking of them (even when you receive little or no response), offer unconditional support and demand nothing in return. My best friend is truly brilliant at this (I guess that is why she is my best friend!).
Sadly so many of us have struggled through the stigma, shame and solitude that often accompany mental illness. But I firmly believe that if we all make time to talk, the next generation will not have to endure the same silent struggles. The time to talk is now: so what are you waiting for?