IT'S a bit of a happy coincidence that in a week when I'm writing on mental health, I also happen to be reading Alastair Campbell's ebook, The Happy Depressive: In Pursuit of Personal and Political Happiness. Campbell had a pretty public breakdown in 1986, and since then he has been very open about his intermittent bouts of severe depression.
Whatever one thinks of his political ideology, Campbell is a passionate advocate for ending the stigma attached to mental illnesses – which he calls the "last great taboo". I always feel well cheered up after reading one of his essays or hearing him speak because Campbell exhibits the inner strengths of people who have gone through mental trauma and come out the other side; better, tougher, grounded and more enlightened. Because if you want to survive mental illness, if you want to have a healthy mental state, honest self-analysis is vital. And self-knowledge is everything.
However, where understanding of mental illness/ health is concerned, despite it now being the biggest threat to societal well-being (both socially and economically), many of us are still at sea about what it actually entails.
What sort of people suffer from it? Is it all in the mind? Is depression an illness or an emotion, or is it just how we all feel after a really bad day at the office? And what about all the other distressing mental states like bipolar, chronic stress, anxiety, panic attacks and so on?
"Depression," said author and feminist Gloria Steinem, "is when nothing matters, and sadness is when everything matters." It's a distinction that a lot of people fail to make. "Are you depressed?" is a question I'm sometimes asked if I'm feeling sad or frustrated or indeed any emotion that isn't on the "happy" scale of the equation. "No," I answer. "I'm just experiencing a natural emotional reaction to events." Real depression is something very, very different.
I know that, as a person who has experienced mental illness in the past, I must be constantly vigilant in recognising symptoms or habits that may lead to a recurrence. At present I take no medications (although I have done in the past and will do again if I need them) but I look after my mental – and consequently, physical – health in a way I never did before I had my first depressive episode. What I've
EOGHAN HARRIS: MY WAY OUT OF THE DARK WOOD, LIVING SECTION
learned along the way is that there is no one "quick fix" for a healthy mind, no happy drug that cures all ills: we are holistic beings and we need to care for ourselves in a holistic manner.
In debating whether depression is an illness or an emotion, Dr Harry Barry of Aware provides, I think, the best explanation. He uses "depression" (small d) to describe the normal periods of sadness and low mood we all suffer when we experience hard times or bereavements; however, "Depression" (with a capital D) is a major depressive disorder which requires professional treatment.
Symptoms of "Depression" include: continuing low mood, weight loss or gain, sleeplessness, loss of self-esteem, loss of drive and ambition, inability to concentrate and suicidal thoughts. So, if you've been experiencing some of the above for a prolonged period of time, my recommendation would be to get to your GP ASAP.
Bipolar disorder (which used to be known as 'manic depression') can include all of the above symptoms associated with Depression, but it also includes the sufferer experiencing at least one elevated period of mood. In bipolar 1 this is called mania; in bipolar 2 (which I was diagnosed as) hypomania – not as severe as full-blown mania. My own two experiences of hypomania included a huge increase in energy and positivity and far less need for sleep. Initially, I thought I was on to a winner – and then I came down, into the inevitable and horrific deadness of Depression and realised that the "high" just wasn't worth the excruciating pain of the "low".
Increasingly, as a society, we are susceptible to chronic stress and anxiety as we try to cope with un- (or under-) employment, mounting bills and massive mortgage costs. Normally, stress is a healthy reaction to pressure; it triggers our "fight or flight" response and is meant to protect us from dangers. But it's our response to stress that can make us ill. If we respond with avoidant or aggressive behaviour or with a toxic lifestyle, we're in trouble. Anxiety occurs when we continue to be stressed long after the initial trigger has gone – and that's when the panic attacks happen.
None of us is exempt from having to mind our mental health, even children and teens. Last week my teenage niece Molly informed me of a campaign herself and some young friends had launched called @BeWellBray – they intend talking to students in their area about how minding your mental health is a very positive thing to do and can't be neglected.
It's obvious that we need to start minding ourselves before we end up incapacitated, but how? The UK New Economic Foundation (cited in Campbell's ebook) suggests a "five-a-day" which is being taken up by David Cameron's Foresight project on Mental Capital and Well-Being. These are:
1. Connect (with the people around you).
2. Be active (walk, run, dance, even twerk if it makes you feel good).
3. Be curious (take note of the beautiful – remark on the unusual).
4. Keep learning (try something new or revive an old interest).
5. Give (do something nice for a friend or stranger, join a community group, volunteer).
All of the above I would recommend heartily, as well as healthy eating and cutting back on the booze. Medication, talk therapy (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, interpersonal therapy, or psychotherapy), exercise, meditation and especially mindfulness – all have their place in gaining, and maintaining, good mental health. It really comes down to whatever gets you – that special unique person – through the night.
Personally, I find that treating your own mind and body as if they belonged to the child you love most in the world and whose good health you are solely responsible for, works wonders. Avoid toxic thoughts – just because you think it, doesn't make it true. Learn to objectively and honestly analyse your emotions and actions. Avoid toxic people – just because they seek you out doesn't mean that you need to listen to them. Learn to distinguish between constructive criticism and downright nastiness – sometimes people disguise the latter as the former. Above all, remember kindness, both to yourself and to others, is crucial for good mental health.
Know yourself. Mind yourself. Love yourself.
Aware: 1890 303302; Samaritans: 6710071; @BeWellBray; Twitter: @carolmhunt