In 2004 I experienced depression. This had been creeping up on me for almost a year, like a dark shadow, insidious and foreboding. Eventually the shadow totally eclipsed me and I gave in. I had 'masked' the symptoms for so long my depression had become a way of life - I accepted it without question. I had lost all insight into how ill I had become. My colleagues tried to warn me as they were witnessing my mood deterioration daily, but I shrugged off all their concerns and soldiered on - after all, I was a qualified mental nurse and this is what we do. 'Soldier on' and not let the side down. We are the strong ones, those who have to always be strong. We are immune to the illnesses our patients experience. If only.
Not 'letting the side down' for the sake of appearance became self defeating
My self stigma compounded my condition. Not 'letting the side down' for the sake of appearance became self defeating, resulting in letting 'the side' and myself down through my denial and reluctance to seek help earlier. Hindsight is a great thing, of course. I eventually sought help after encouragement from my manager, and started taking antidepressants. Following a few months on sick leave I returned energised and determined to not make the same mistake again. Having worked as a qualified mental health nurse all my life my work was my life: it is in my blood.
“It goes with the territory”
At the launch of Time to Change in 2009 I passionately wanted to get involved. I felt compelled to highlight my own depression, my own reluctance to seek help, and discourage others from making the mistakes I made. I wanted to make a difference. I was mindful of the stigma I felt, the stigma I experienced from others, and also the support I received. I doubt those who were there for me at the time will ever really understand how their compassion and empathy made me feel. They know who they are. I will always be grateful for this and cannot find the words to express this. It was not all positive, though. One comment from a fellow mental health professional – “it goes with the territory” - intended to minimise my situation and stigmatise me remains etched in my memory and has been a driving force for my anti-stigma work since.
Suddenly attitudes among my fellow professionals started changing
I started delivering talks and presentations to my fellow mental health professionals about my own experiences and to promote Time to Change. I put myself on a platform. I opened up my heart, my soul, and my mind. In 2011 the media advisory service was launched and I relished this opportunity to work in the media to change attitudes and opinions. One morning at work I received a telephone call from Fiona, a researcher from the TV programme Emmerdale. Fiona asked me 'Have you heard of a character called Zak Dingle, Lol?' The rest is history. For a year I advised on Zak's 'depression' storyline and suddenly attitudes among my fellow professionals started changing. They could see I was doing something different, unique even. They could see I felt no shame in the work I was doing; in fact, I was proud of it. I had the opportunity to advise as a qualified mental health nurse and as someone with personal experience of depression. I wanted to promote as much sensitivity and authenticity as possible.
Many of them could now watch and recall my own experiences, which they observed at the time, played out on TV. They had been the coincidental audience to my own meltdown and were now seeing this portrayed on their TV screens, through Zak. I exploited this angle and I am not ashamed to admit this. I could see it was an opportunity to make my fellow professionals and the general public think differently about mental illness (particularly mental illness and men).
I have received some criticism about my openness but always view this as positive too
The feedback was very positive. I was buoyed by this. I talk to people now who I worked with during those dark days of my depression and they are mostly supportive. I have received some criticism about my openness but always view this as positive too. I believe if people, especially in my own profession, are talking about mental health, then they are bringing the topic out from the shadows and into the light. We now move forward with a confidence that things are changing for the better; however, there is still some way to go. We are confident we will reach our destination, eventually.
Change must be made
My own profession has to take a hard and close look at itself and acknowledge the failings where stigma is concerned. We no longer live in Victorian Britain when people were subjected to custodial care, social exclusion and discrimination. Staff in the mental health profession no longer have to adopt a 'stiff upper lip' approach, and the 'big boys don't cry' attitude is as out of date as the asylums and padded cells we have left behind. For their sake, and the sake of those who they care for, change must be made. I made the mistake of stigmatising myself but through adversity can come strength. I am stronger now for knowing this and have learnt from this.
Find out more about our work with mental health professionals.