Today is World Mental Health Day – an initiative by the World Health Organisation which is designed to “raise public awareness about mental health issues. The day promotes open discussion of mental disorders, and investments in prevention, promotion and treatment services.”
This year, the theme is depression, which affects over 350 million people worldwide.
350 million people. Pretty amazing for a disease that can make you feel like you’re all alone in the world.
I’ve not really talked about this on the blog before, but in the interests of an open discussion – which is what World Mental Health Day is all about – I’m going to take the first step and share my own experience of it, in the hope that it might help someone else. Pass it on, and all that.
Last January, I went to the doctor. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what wasn’t right – I wasn’t ill, and nothing outwardly was wrong – but something just didn’t feel good. I had a knotted up feeling in my chest, and I desperately, desperately wanted to stay home and avoid everyone and everything. Not possible, given I was juggling a full-time job and an PhD – but I went to the doctor because I felt like I’d reached a point where I couldn’t quite balance these things on my own any more.
As soon as I started to try to explain it, I started to cry. It was the first time I’d talked about it to anyone – and that wasn’t for want of people to talk to. My family and my friends are all amazing, and I know I could’ve discussed it with them had I wanted to – in fact, I really wish I had, because I know someone very close to me was going through a very similar thing at the time. But for some reason, I couldn’t quite bring myself to sit down and have the conversation. I hadn’t really planned to have it with the doctor that day, but it just came out.
And I’m really glad it did.
I didn’t need much treatment – I had some medication for a couple of weeks, just to give me the time to give myself a bit of a break and get some sleep, and had a few conversations with a professional who helped me to revise my priorities and work out what was really important. Six weeks later, I’d made the decision to get back on the programme and get fit. I haven’t looked back.
The problem is that people don’t want to talk about it – or “waste anyone’s time” – if they think they’re only a little bit depressed. That’s a lack of self-confidence in itself, undermining the idea that you’re important enough, and that your feelings are worthy enough, to warrant a discussion. The image a lot of us have of depression is that you’ve got to be on the verge of a breakdown to need to talk to someone, but that’s just not true. Depression can take a huge number of forms – and very few of them live up to the cliched images of what constitutes “depressed.” I know I didn’t fit the bill – I was being the bubbly fat girl, I had a good job, great relationships with family and friends, and I was flying on the PhD.
Once I’d been diagnosed, though, a lot of things started to fit into place. It explained why I’d have long periods of almost ridiculous productivity, followed by weeks of panicking that I couldn’t cope, alternating between not sleeping, and needing to sleep all the time. It explained why I’d feel completely differently about my relationships, my body and everything else, from week to week. And it gave me the clarity to see that I wasn’t living my life to the full because I was letting certain things hold me back – with my weight being just one of a number of factors that I needed to address.
It’s also given me the ability to trust and pay attention to myself and my emotions that now means I can see the downward times coming, dig in my heels, and build up my little fort of resources I now have to deal with it. Things like yoga, meditation, and listening to music aren’t just things I do for pleasure – they’re the weapons I use to keep myself together when I feel like I’m having a bit of a wobble. Which I still do, from time to time.
That’s why when I wrote my post on Sunday on dealing with stress, it was as much for me as it was for you guys, much as I love you – because I still have to take the time to remind myself what’s important and how to get on. No matter how far along you get on a journey like this, you still have to keep yourself in check from time to time to avoid falling back into negative habits. I think that’s good practice whether you’re depressed or not.
I strongly believe that it’s never, ever too late to get better, so long as you have the resources you need to do so. They might be medical – and I’d strongly recommend taking the time to talk to your doctor if you think there’s even the slightest chance you’re suffering from depression – but they can be all sorts of other things. I’ve got a piece coming out in MindBodyGreen later today called “Why You Already Have Everything You Need to Be Happy” because you really, really do. Treatment for depression – in any form – is just a method to help you to find the resources you already have in you. That’s it.
Again, though, I’m going to go back to the thing I seem to say all the time at the moment – that what I’ve done is a lifestyle change. Given I started this year in a much more grim place, those two words do have quite a strong meaning for me, as much as I feel like they’re kind of an awkward cliche. If I’d gone on a traditional “diet” at the start of the year, I’d probably have ended up even more depressed than I already was. What’s far more important than losing weight is being healthy – and that’s just as important on the mental front as it is the physical.
Without facing up to what’s wrong, you won’t be able to work out how to make it right – so please don’t be afraid to look for help. You can, and you will get through it – and in the end, you’ll be so much better for it. I’m happy now, and I’m healthy on the inside and out. My life has changed more than I could ever have expected it to that day I went to see my doctor.
I know, now, that I can cope – in fact, I can kick butt – but I couldn’t have done that without initially acknowledging that I had issues with my mental health. And that’s why, today, I’m writing this post. Because you can turn it around, and you really can be happy – but you have to be completely honest with yourself, and give yourself the opportunity to get the help you need.
That’s why I think World Mental Health Day is important – because it gives us the opportunity to be totally honest and open about illnesses that can be very lonely, and very isolating. It’s an opportunity not just to address our own issues, but to share with, and hopefully offer some support to, other people – and if that’s not a good cause, I don’t know what is. Health is an all-round thing, and achieving wellbeing should never just be about weight loss. Far more than that, it’s about being happy – so today, give yourself and those around you the opportunity to do just that.