November 21, 2012

Christina, a Time to Change bloggerWhen you talk about being depressed, you often see people giving you this look, like they're not quite sure what to do or say and they might want to run away. You can see them scanning the horizon for all possible egress routes. You feel like maybe you should stop talking.

I understand that it's a difficult thing to talk about, especially if you have no experience of it. It takes a pretty special type of person to look you in the eye and say 'right, okay, I don't know what this is like but this conversation doesn't scare me and I'm going to be here for you'.

I've encountered a few of these people. Having them stand by me when I've been going through the worst bouts of depression has made all the difference in the world. And I can't thank them enough. But then, there are people who don’t understand, and don’t know how to be around you because they don’t know how to deal with you, and perhaps they feel inadequate.

People who don’t understand can be quite cruel. It’s easy to be afraid that people won’t be supportive of you, and some won’t – but so many people will. And the more this gets talked about, the more talking about mental illness will become normal.

some of the most painful and some of the most wonderful responses to me: the depressive

So I'm going to talk about some of the most painful and some of the most wonderful responses to me: the depressive (not to be confused with me: the photographer or me: the friend or me: the professional or any of the other parts of me. Depression is just one part).

When I was first diagnosed with clinical depression, aged 17, my best friend's mum told her she should stay away from me. To give her credit, she didn't listen. But this, my first encounter with the stigma attached to mental illness, was a big shock. Perhaps she thought that her daughter was going to catch it from me. Or that having depression meant that I was going to go on a crazy rampage, turning up at their house tearing my hair out and screaming in the street.

I thought of depression as something that wasn't real

To be fair, I wasn't the easiest person to deal with at that age. I didn't really understand what was going on inside my brain and I didn't feel I had any control over it. I tried to talk about it at school once and another friend told me to shut up because it wasn't like I had any real problems and I was insulting people who were actually ill with something real.

For quite a long time after that, I thought of depression as something that wasn't real. And every time I had a low episode, or a panic attack, or couldn't stop crying, or felt so horribly bad for no real reason, or self harmed, I just assumed I was going crazy, because it wasn't real, right? So why was I being like this? My resulting moodswings and high maintenance behaviour probably wasn't very nice to deal with. But I remember a friend sitting with me all night one dark, winter Friday night, in my dark bedroom, while I just lay there and cried. And another friend taking me for a drive in her new car and saying 'look, I don't understand this but I'm worried about you'.

Last year, I had a pretty massive breakdown

Last year, I had a pretty massive breakdown. It was not fun, it took me a long time to recover and sometimes I think that perhaps I'm still not quite over it (although I'm a LOT stronger now and the new range of tools I have in my arsenal to help me tackle my depression as a result of it are brilliant - some good came out of it, I'm absolutely sure).

At the beginning I was a total mess. I lay on the sofa a lot, weeping into a cushion. I missed my own birthday party. All I wanted to do was stare into space and wear a giant jumper and eat crisps. My friends went to the restaurant we'd booked - why shouldn't they? - and afterwards a couple of them came to see me.

looked me straight in the eye and said supportive things and gave me my birthday present

It was brave of them. I must have looked like a disaster area, and my company was not exactly what you would call top notch. They didn't care and they weren't scared. They marched into the living room and clustered around the sofa I was huddled on, and looked me straight in the eye and said supportive things and gave me my birthday present, and the best part of it all - they handed me a supermarket carrier bag. It was full to the brim with crisps. And the message was clear - 'lying around eating crisps isn't ideal and it's not what we'd do with our Saturday night. But we're here for you and if this is what you've gotta do right now, we're going to help you do it'.

Other friends, during that period in my life, took me for short walks around the block, brought me flowers, sat quietly with me watching TV, told me they were there for me. Some of 'em got annoyed and told me to pull myself together because I was letting everyone down. Some people just ignored me completely. In the end I learned to block out those reactions and just get on with what I had to do to get better. And that's the message, really. It doesn't really matter what anyone else thinks. But it would help a whole lot if people would understand mental illness a little better. After all, we all have a brain. We all have mental well-being. Some of us need to work on its upkeep a little more than others. The best thing we can do for each other is understand and help out where we can.

Make eye contact, bring them crisps, give them a quick ring

So, if you know someone who's having mental health problems, don't ignore them completely. Make eye contact, bring them crisps, give them a quick ring, listen to them. And tell them this: it's going to be okay. It's going to be okay. Until they are strong enough to say it to themselves.

What do you think about the issues raised in this blog? Share your views with us on Twitter >>

Or pledge to share your experience of mental health today and find out how talking tackles discrimination.

Share your story

Too many people are made to feel ashamed. By sharing your story, you can help spread knowledge and perspective about mental illness that could change the way people think about it.