The recent, tragic news of Robin Williams’ death has shocked the world. For a man seen by so many to be an epitome of joy and happiness to suffer so desperately from severe depression has hammered it home to many that mental illness doesn’t respect social or economic barriers. Although there is still widespread nay-saying about his depression, suggesting that his wealth and successes remove his capacity to develop and harbour mental health problems, the bulk of discussion has been aimed at promoting mental health awareness and suicide prevention. I think this is to be welcomed, but am so very sad that it has taken such a high profile person to suffer from mental health problems for the issues to get airtime.
I’ve been writing this on-and-off for a fortnight or so now, and have been meaning to put this into words for a lot longer. It’s a topic I find quite easy to write about, but only in short bursts; it’s exhausting and emotional. The field of mental health is an area that we as a society stigmatise and ridicule at almost every chance we get, and my experiences of it have proven, to me at least, that it’s something we definitely need to take seriously.
Never make fun of depression, because it is the worst thing in the world. If you have severe depression, you may still be highly functioning, able to present to the world as happy and carefree, but the moment you have a moment to yourself, the façade begins to fall away and the cracks start to show. Although it can manifest itself as such, depression isn’t always a terrible sadness or sorrow. It’s the deadening of emotion and the flattening of mood. It’s the extinguishing of hope and the onset of despair and tedium. Nothing really matters much when you have depression. When coupled with anxiety, though, apathy and uncaring can change to terror and an inability to function in a heartbeat, and often with the tiniest trigger. This can lead to people with depression falling behind in society – in their financial and professional obligations, in their relationships with others, and with their own self care. And when you have depression, you realise that this is all happening, but you can’t do anything to stop it. You blame yourself, and fail to do anything to repair the damage. Things spiral, and it gets more difficult with each passing day – reaching out for help is a task that takes mountains of energy and willpower, and for many people it is nearly impossible. Combined with an all-too-commonly appalling state of local and regional mental health facilities and services, at least outside the voluntary & community sector, it’s no wonder people find it so hard to begin to get help.
Depression isn’t rare, either. An estimated 8-12% of the population of the UK have experienced some form of the condition, and in certain parts of the population, the rates are much higher. Northern Ireland has some particularly bad statistics for mental health due to our recent conflict and current high levels of social deprivation mixed with ongoing sectarian tension. The LGB&T community has higher rates of depression and mental illness again, and the transgender community has rates of depression in the 90% range and above, and a suicide attempt rate of over 40%. Tens of millions of people across Europe have depression – it’s not something we should, or can afford to, ignore.
My experience of depression has shaped my life in a strange way. I don’t think I would be the same person if I hadn’t have gone through it for so long, and I’m glad, in a way, for some of the insights that it has provided that I probably would otherwise not have come across, but the overall experience was horrendous and torturous. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
I’ve had depression since I was about 13. Puberty was underway and my gender-related feelings had never been so strong. Being unable to speak up about this led to a deep sense of shame and wrongfulness, which progressed quickly to severe depression. I managed to function significantly well academically throughout the beginning few years, but as it worsened, I began to slip up. My grades suffered and my passions were slowly quenched by a wave of apathy and a feeling of disenfranchisement and detachment from society. Whereas I was previously thrilled and dead excited to go to university to study engineering, it was now just something I was going to do. Don’t get me wrong – I still enjoyed things, but my fire was well and truly out, and even the embers of my emotions were damp and tepid. My relationships suffered, and I was always unable to devote as much time and energy to my friends and family as I would have liked, because quite simply I was constantly exhausted. Getting out of bed itself took most of my energy from me, and I had to spend the rest of the day carefully dividing the remaining rations just so I would be able to cope with everyday life. My emotional capacity was disastrously low, and I found it difficult to understand other people and their emotions, which seemed so peaked and varied compared to my own.
What made it so torturous, though, was my inability to tell a single soul about what I was going through. My lips were sealed – not because I didn’t want to reach out, but because my mind would just block any attempt I made to communicate feelings. “They’ll only tell you to get over it” went through my head every time I even considered calling out for help. “You’re the failure, not anyone else” and other self-contained debates prevented me from bringing up my worries about anything. If you knew me through my teenage years and noticed that I never worried about my future or my plans, it’s because I kept a straight face on the outside, while screaming with terror and despair on the inside. I’m sorry for lying to you. It took almost seven years of complete inaction and bottling things up before the valve burst and my feelings sprayed everywhere for the first time in my conscious life. I refer to this period affectionately as “coming out as trans”. That made all the difference. Although it wasn’t immediate (and some of my close friends will know that I had a very difficult time shortly after coming out – again, thank you and sorry), my mental health gradually improved and recovered after that enormous weight was lifted. Although I’ve never engaged with risk activities like self-harm or suicide attempts while I was that low, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that coming out last year saved my life.
Until very recently, I found it extremely difficult to communicate emotion well, but thanks to my wonderful partner, I’ve re-learned how to show love for someone. My passion has returned – I can now cry with happiness as well as sadness, and I feel a fire in my heart when I talk about things and people I care about. Of course, transitioning, hormones and the like have helped enormously with it all, but it all started with telling that one soul about what was wrong with me. What I did before was not living. It was existing, and it was not a pleasant existence either. This is living, and this is worth the uphill battle. Sure, I still have plenty of issues to work out – remnants from those dark days, but I can work through most of those on my own, in my own time, and they don’t compound or spiral out of control. Opening myself up to the world was the best thing I ever did, and I can’t communicate how much it has changed my life.
And yet, I hope this isn’t going to turn into a post lecturing people with depression or other mental health problems to go seek help. When I first realised I had depression, I wasn’t ready to approach anyone. I understand that it’s extremely difficult to start those conversations, and to continue them once they’ve been initiated can often be harder. My bad depression was caused by gender, but no matter what your cause is, it’s valid. Mental illness can be the most irrational force on this earth – it makes no sense to try to justify it or reason with it. It knows no borders, respects no boundaries, and takes no prisoners. It’s a chronic issue, but one that is usually curable. “Coming out” as depressed is so excruciatingly difficult, but it can be done. It’s not selfish if you have depression, and it’s not selfish if you do or don’t get help, but reaching out can prove lifesaving. There are few issues that can’t be worked through in some way, and even if the problems are deep-rooted and serious, even opening up about them can bring about fantastic change.
As I’ve said already, depression is the worst thing in the world. Maybe not objectively, in light of all the terrible events that happen across the world daily, but if you’re going through it, it’s a different matter. When there’s no rest, no light at the end of the tunnel and no way out, there is nothing quite as bad as your own thoughts. In a way, it makes your own mind like Orwell’s famous Room 101, and that’s something no-one should have to endure.
We need to take mental illness more seriously. Invisible disability and mental health are areas usually swept under the rug in most popular discussions around health and well-being, and people with mental illness are usually regarded as just over-sensitive or making mountains out of molehills. When you’ve been kicked to the ground by your own brain, looking up at that molehill can indeed render it a mountain – like everything, perspective is crucial. Massively-underfunded mental health facilities and, shall we say, less-than-ideal treatment for depression and anxiety disorders don’t serve to help those who suffer. Combine these with a welfare system that contributes to mental illness and it’s an awful dish to serve to anyone, never mind people so vulnerable.
As this approaches 2,000 words, I think thoughts on mental health care will be another post in the future.
If you know depressed people in your life, reach out to them. Offer help, reassure them that you’re there and you want to listen to them and support them. Give them space, and help them if they confide in you. Respect confidences, and be extremely patient. Recovery takes time, and can be difficult for everyone involved. Thank you for trying.
If you’re depressed yourself, there are so many people out there that want to help. Reaching out for a helping hand is so hard, but it can be done, and it’s worth the effort. It’s a whole new world out there in recovery. But also don’t forget that it’s not your fault – mental illness doesn’t discriminate. We love you and want to see you thrive. Relight the fire in your heart – it’s a leap of faith that I trust will pay off in the end.
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