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We’re not done talking about mental health

Holyrood Magazine

We’re not done talking about mental health

“How are you?” my friend exclaimed as she greeted me this morning with a radiant smile and a hug.

I gestured equivocation with my hand.

“So-so… not great,” I said, smiling weakly back.

“What’s up?”

I pointed at my head. Anything to avoid saying the word. ‘Depressed.’

I started writing this column yesterday – Blue Monday. It’s pseudoscience, of course – complete hokum. Invented by a holiday company.

But as one Tweeter reminded us last week, Blue Monday isn’t the most depressing day of the year at all. The most depressing day of the year is the day you’re depressed.

The tweet was bang on. I already knew. Because I was – and had been for several weeks. In fact, by the time I saw it, I was in freefall. I had struggled to get up that morning – and every morning since the turn of the year.

Most days I’d managed to, eventually, but then spent hours doing nothing at all. I’d started not answering the phone. I didn’t want to see friends. Uncomfortably numb, I had nothing to say.

I didn’t feel depressed – because mostly I didn’t feel anything at all. I was depressed. And I still am.

It’s an episode. I’m scraping my way out. Emotionally, I can barely see past it. Intellectually, I know it can be the past. At least until next time.

I know all this because I’ve had bouts of depression for as long as I can remember. Depression’s not quite an old friend. But it’s someone I know.

I didn’t know what it was as a child. But I did know about depression. I grew up in a house where we tiptoed around my mother’s mental illness. I hoped her fate wouldn’t be mine.

Whether the two are connected, I’ve no idea. But she didn’t pass it on because I’m adopted. It’s probable that, and the roots of my depression, are connected. But that’s another story.

Eighteen years ago, one of those bouts spiralled until I was barely functioning. In the end, a suicide attempt saved me because I woke up. And then I had to get on with the rest of my life.

Recovery, as I have said many times since, was a trudge, not a revelation.

But recover I did. Slowly but surely. And these last few years have been the best of my life.

Five years ago, when I became the chair of Scotland’s leading mental health charity, SAMH, I took the opportunity to tell the story of my breakdown and the road back.

But I masked it with the cloak of recovery. I spoke of someone who’d experienced mental illness but had recovered. It wasn’t a lie. Not quite.

But the truth – despite the arrival of more happiness than I’d ever experienced – was that none of the factors that had led to my depression had gone away. I’d just got a whole lot better at dealing with them.

Last summer, as the genesis of my current episode bubbled away, I watched Alastair Campbell’s visceral documentary, Depression and Me. Alastair scores his mood out of 10 and some days when the score is too low, he retreats.

As I watched, I recoiled. It reminded me that depression was still part of me. I had just chosen a different story. I wanted to protect myself. And I’m not alone.

According to research commissioned by See Me, Scotland’s programme to tackle mental health stigma and discrimination, 35 per cent of Scots who have struggled with their mental health don’t feel comfortable talking about it.

This time I’ve done better than during any of the skirmishes I’ve had since that crash in 2002. I’m tweeting a poem every day. I get to the gym to continue my post knee-surgery rehab. And I’ve asked friends for help.

I’m lucky – experience has taught me the drill. And in the layer of fog I’m enveloped in, I can just hear it.

I’m fortunate, too, because my friends and colleagues – even those I know less well – have responded magnificently. They’ve nudged. But they haven’t judged.

Yet I still hate naming it. Even for me, someone who is at the forefront of the mental health movement in Scotland, depression feels shaming.

Saying you’re not OK – instead of the euphemisms we so often resort to – is hard. That’s true for the giver and the receiver. I know – I’ve run away from the depression of friends, too. We’re none of us perfect.

Just telling someone can feel like a big reveal. And hearing it can feel like a dead weight. But when I say it out loud, an absence of rejection can be enough. I don’t need people to do anything. The person in any case who can do most is me.

“I’m not dumping it on you,” I assured my friend, this morning.

“I know,” she said. “But perhaps we can get a coffee. Would that help?”

“That would be great,” I said.

It’s in such everyday encounters – as much as grand strategies – that we will challenge stigma. It’s OK not to be OK, but we’re not there yet. It’s time to talk.

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