Katy Harrington: 'We need to talk about summer depression. I'll start...'
When the sun is shining and everyone else is having fun, mental health issues can seem even worse, writes Living columnist Katy Harrington - but help is out there and it can be beaten
One day in English class, my favourite secondary school teacher explained the concept of pathetic fallacy to the class. We were studying Macbeth and he used the example of the appearance of the witches (always a bad sign) and the thunderous weather which hints that something wicked this way comes (spoiler alert: Duncan gets it).
Since then, the concept of pathetic fallacy has stuck with me. As humans we tend to attribute emotions to inanimate things, especially the weather. Look outside - if it's pouring rain it's easy to feel like the world is against you and retract under the covers; awaken to birds twittering and rays of golden sunshine reaching to you through the blinds and the day feels inviting and full of possibility, right? If only.
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About two years ago, I had my first serious mental health wobble and it happened during the most beautiful, relentlessly sunny summer London has seen.
That wobble - official name 'low mood/depression' - was in the post for a while to be honest. I was a bit lonely, not looking after myself very well, partying too hard, drinking too much, hanging out with people I didn't care for, and who most certainly did not care for me. I wasn't in a good place with my parents, a little distant from my old pals, most of whom were in long-term relationships, having kids or moving back home to settle down.
Then my auntie, who I loved, admired and respected like few others I have known, died. I thought we would be friends and allies for many, many years to come and I was beyond pissed off when I realised that was not going to happen. I flew home for her funeral, hungover, cried hysterically during the very simple reading I'd been given to do and, when I got back to London, I thought "f**k it, I give up". Let whatever I've been fighting do its worst, I'm too tired to care any more.
It's hard to name the exact feelings I had at that time, but I know my life felt empty, even though my room was full of old pizza boxes, my bedside table a Jenga pile of dirty cups and bowls and the ashtrays outside the house I rented overflowing. I took joy in very little, I looked forward to nothing. I stopped answering texts - in fact I developed a phobia of my phone, and the shower. I don't know why this is one of the hardest things to admit but my personal hygiene went to pot. During the week, I'd drag myself out of bed and try to look acceptable at work, but weekends would pass without washing or brushing my teeth, and I'd go for months without changing the sheets on my bed.
I became expert at cancelling plans at the last minute but when I did go out I went out-of-control out, which would lead to the mother of all comedowns and days and days of self-flagellation and groggy hangovers on top of everything else happening in my muddy mind.
The one thing I could do was eat and, boy, did I, gaining over a stone and throwing money at Deliveroo, all of which made me hate myself that little bit more. I looked in the mirror one morning and thought "I'm in my 30s and I look older and more shagged than Keith Richards".
And all the time, the sun just kept on shining. The city was alive outside, my walk to work felt like a conveyor belt of hot guys in shorts and beautiful women in flowing summer dresses, people who had their lives together while mine was falling apart. Every night there were after-work drinks on roof-top terraces to avoid, weekend barbecue invites to wiggle out of, summer parties to cancel on and bank holiday plans to pretend to make. All I wanted to do was shut my bedroom door, lie in bed with the fan on as quietly as possible for as long as possible, in the hope that maybe everyone would forget about me and I could forget about everything.
Sorry, this isn't much fun to read is it? Believe me, it is not my favourite thing to write either but I wanted to because I have a feeling - in fact, I know - I'm not alone. It's interesting that it was in June, the first month of summer, the hashtag #HowIFightDepression started to trend on Twitter.
Martin Rogan is chief executive of Mental Health Ireland and he explains why this might be.
"Most people think of dark times in the winter months," he says. "Even in evolutionary terms, we are designed to be less active in the winter, our energy level drops off, we stay indoors more, we are less social perhaps. But what often happens as the days stretch out, spring arrives and the weather improves, there's an expectation that our moods will lift. But if you have clinical depression you can feel that your mood isn't lifting like other people's, so it becomes more apparent and more difficult."
Rogan points to evidence that there are spikes in self-harm and suicide in the summer months, not the depths of winter. "It's not what you'd expect", he says. "Everyone is bright and light and active and getting involved in sport and enjoying the weather and all that good stuff. But if you are feeling depressed you could feel even more isolated and removed. It's a case of everyone else seems to be having a ball and my life is difficult."
So I'm not alone, depression worsening in summer time is a real thing. I take some comfort in that but much more in his reassurance that, just because I've had bouts of bad depression in previous summers, that doesn't mean all my summers are doomed.
What should you do if you feel things start to slide this summer?
The standard advice, he says, is talk to someone. "Someone who will take time to listen", he says. "A second opinion is really helpful. They can help you put a plan in place. Do not let it drift. Talk to your GP."
A note on talking to your GP. I had a bad experience with the first GP I went to for help here on the UK's NHS (he got cross when the appointment was taking up more than the allotted time - which I understand as he has lots of other patients - but is not ideal when you are trying to tell someone you are not sure if you want to live any more and still keep it under three minutes). However, he did refer me to a free counselling service which led to getting set up with a brilliant therapist (who I still refer to as "magic Rohan") who saved my life.
The message from Mental Health Ireland is clear: "If you can't talk to your GP, find a different GP." And if you think your GP won't understand, then take heart, about 35pc of all GP visits relate to mental health, so it's highly unlikely you are going to be the first person who comes to them with depression.
As I continue to talk to Martin over the phone (him walking down the street in Dublin, me in London) I tell him I have become annoyed and despondent in the past when I've confided in people and they've given me the "get out and go for a walk" line of advice.
He listens and then tells me something everyone - even if you have never heard of low mood or depression - should hear. "When you are checking in with someone you are not looking for an advice vending machine," he says. "Most people know the solutions to their problems already. It's not rocket science. If you were able to do these things you'd just go ahead and do it. If I'm able to jump over a fence then the fence isn't an issue... it's telling someone the equivalent of 'pull your socks up'. If you could take that advice you would. What you need is someone who will stay with you and listen." That, my friends, is very good counsel.
Here's another thing - if you feel good, summer is great, but if you are feeling depressed and then there's the added social pressure of weddings, barbecues, family gatherings, christenings, confirmations…your depression can become more pronounced.
Is there is a strategy that works to deal with 'social obligation'?
"Be gentle with yourself and take the advice you'd give to others," says Martin. "If you knew someone else was struggling just to get up, get active and keep a smile on their face, would you put them under pressure? No. So don't do it to yourself."
He recommends speaking to whoever is doing the inviting. "Talk to them first, tell them 'look I know this might be hard to understand but I'm really struggling at the moment and I really want to be there, but I may not be able to." This sounds eminently more effective than my put-your-phone-under-a-pillow-and-pretend-you-forgot-where-it-was approach.
Before Martin and I finish our call, he shares some very good news: with every form of mental illness, especially those that are mood related, you can recover.
"The vast majority of people who experience mental health do really well," he says. "The successes we don't hear about so much. It's not easy or straightforward but like climbing very steep stairs - sometimes you need to stop and catch your breath and appreciate how far you've come before you take the next step."
I am currently catching my breath on that step. I still have bouts of low mood and depression. Like many other people, my depression comes with a side of anxiety. Just this week I woke up one morning feeling like someone was sitting on my chest and with a haunting, ominous feeling of dread. But it passed, it always passes. As one friend who has had her own mental health struggles put it: "You just have to ride the wave."
Trial and error
I'd like to make it very clear my approach to dealing with depression has very much been trial-and-error so far. Therapy definitely worked but so did a lot of things I did by myself. At the start of the year I deleted about 40 numbers from my phone. Now I try to keep in regular contact with the people I love, and who have my best interests at heart - even people I'd lost touch with or hurt in the bad times. I have decided not to book any holidays abroad this year because the thought of where to go, who to go with and the fear of how I'll feel once I arrive (plus bikinis) is all too much for me right now. Instead I'm going to go to Co Kerry and swim in the Atlantic and walk on the beach and read novels and not take a single picture.
I did try booze-free weekends, which went very well for a while until one Monday I was so bored of my piety I went out after work and got smashed on cheap wine and ended up having a fight with a Scottish archaeologist about colonisation at 2am and losing my new denim jacket, so now I'm road-testing not drinking at all midweek instead. I've tried meditation (which I liked) and yoga (which I hated). The struggle to conquer my Deliveroo addiction continues.
I'm still a bit of a mess, but at the moment the mess feels manageable. I have already accepted that summer 2019 will not be my best. I'm not going to lose two stone, get a perfect tan or have the best holiday ever. My house or my hair will not always be clean, but my teeth are and that is progress. Mainly my hope for this summer is for it to be one of little social obligation and zero expectations. And there's the big difference - I have hope.
Helpful tips If you're feeling down
1 Aware, which offers support for depression and other mental health issues, describes depression as having eight main symptoms. If you experience five or more of these symptoms, lasting for a period of two weeks or more, speak to your GP or mental health professional. The symptoms of depression are: feeling sad, anxious, guilty, low energy, feeling tired or fatigued; under or over-sleeping or any change to normal sleep pattern; poor concentration, thoughts slowed down, loss of interest in hobbies, family or social life, low self-esteem, physical aches and pains with no physical basis, loss of interest in living, thinking about death, suicidal thoughts.
2 If you have experienced these symptoms go to your GP and if for any reason you don't feel comfortable talking to your GP, contact another GP and explain the situation. Just don't do nothing.
3 As well as making an appointment to see your GP as soon as you can, confide in someone you trust who will stick with you. Tell them how you are feeling and it's fine to tell them that you just need someone to listen.
4 According to a spokesperson for Aware, keeping a mood diary may be helpful. This way, you can track your mood and identify if there is a pattern forming. This can also help you explain how you feel to your doctor on your visit.
5 Other practical tips include paying attention to your diet - a healthy balanced diet promotes mental health.
6 Try to get some exercise every day, exercise produces endorphins, which help mood. That doesn't mean going for a 10-mile run. Do whatever you can manage, even if that's a gentle walk.
7 Sleep is an important factor in mood-related conditions, so make sure you are getting enough quality sleep. This can be more difficult in the summer months with the longer hours of daylight but try a decent sleep mask if you don't have heavier blinds for your bedroom in the summer months.
8 Remember you are not alone. More than 450,000 people in Ireland experience depression (one in 10) at any one time but many hide their condition and never get help. But depression is something that will get better if you get help.
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