We need to get more comfortable listening to people talk about their mental health

Written by Dr Malcolm Harvey on 16 May 2018 in Comment

Dr Malcolm Harvey gives an update on his personal experience of depression

Image credit: Dr Malcolm Harvey

Seconds out, round three.

In my last piece about my experience of depression, I used a boxing analogy, so it makes sense that I start with that, rather than doing what I often do and mix metaphors wildly.  Not being a big boxing fan though, I’m inclined to finish it after that first sentence. I may, however, return to it later.

I tried to write that opening paragraph four times in order to make it sound like it made more sense, but then I realised that anyone with depression or other mental health issues that’s reading it will understand entirely why it reads the way it does, why it doesn’t really make any sense as an introduction, and why I’ve left it like that anyway. Focus, concentration, clarity – these are often pretty standard victims of challenging mental health circumstances. As an academic – where these are rather high up the list of things you need to be reasonably good at in your job – it’s rather more worrying when they undergo challenges.

Let’s back up a bit though. In April last year, I wrote openly about depression, about trying to get people to recognise their own mental health issues, and to talk more about it. In November, I wrote an update, after coming off the medication I’d been on for around three years. This is an update to the update, and a search for some answers that I raised last time out.

First, some good news. Despite about a week of dizziness (as a result of which I couldn’t even stand up, much less drive or deliver lectures) when I came off the medication, I’ve seen no ill effects. In a technical sense, I’ve replaced artificial serotonin creation with natural serotonin. Practically, what this means is I’m no longer taking drugs and I’m now running a lot more. And when I say a lot more – I ran every day in January, and I’ve signed up for the Loch Ness Marathon again in September – I mean a lot more. Running gets me outside, gets me socialising with my colleagues (one of whom I convinced to join me in the marathon) and breaks up the day sitting at the desk. The organised runs – parkruns, 10ks, half marathons and marathon – give me something to focus on and to work up to; a target, a goal, something to achieve.

What has also been apparent in the past eight months or so is that I’ve found better ways of dealing with set-backs, disappointments and other ‘come-downs’. I help my Dad organise our family golf outing in early May, and this year’s event went swimmingly – glorious sunshine, significant beverage consumption, mediocre golfing performance – but it often takes a lot mentally to organise then socialise for the whole weekend. I managed, but more importantly, I managed the come-down in the days after it, when this event we’d been building to was over, and there was nothing to organise. I recognised that I was more vulnerable, and found other foci, things I needed to work on, to fill the gap.

In short, I’m doing much better than this time last year.

However, I’m not cured. I don’t think you’re ever cured. I carry this with me. My brain is constantly fighting this bout (told you I’d come back to the metaphor). The socialising at the weekend was great – but having to be switched on from start to finish? To keep the game face on, to constantly find topics of conversation, to engage, to ‘be’ there in mind and body? It’s exhausting. And that was with my (extended) family – who know and love me anyway. I’d had the same experience at an academic conference in March. I’d thoroughly enjoyed seeing colleagues I hadn’t seen for months, but at the end of the day, I was absolutely exhausted.

I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve seen mental health materials paraphrase the Socrates quote ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle’. I can’t begin to tell you how true the battle part of that is. That battle takes so much out of us.

The recent death of Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison hit home on that front – partly as a result of it being Scotland, where some of my friends were his friends. So too did the death of Veronica Falls drummer Patrick Doyle, who was the year below me at school, whose house I’d played snooker in. In truth, I know nothing about either of these guys beyond their musical exploits, and the fact that they were fellow sufferers. 

At universities we are seeing a significant increase in students reporting mental health issues, and though as academics we’re trying hard to help, the lack of training and other pressures on our time means we’re firefighting on this constantly. The prevalence of mental health issues, and the prominence of news stories referencing it, including great initiatives like Mental Health Awareness Week, mean we’re getting to a point, slowly, that people are more comfortable talking about their mental health.

We do, however, need to be more comfortable listening to people talking about it. And that’s the next challenge.

Dr Malcolm Harvey is a Teaching Fellow in Politics at the University of Aberdeen. He wrote this in a personal capacity.

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