#TimeToTalk Day 2020


Tomorrow, 6 February, is #TimeToTalk Day. The day is run by the Time To Change organisation, and is all about opening a conversation: this may be with someone who might need support; it could be to help raise general awareness of mental health issues; or it may be to help people be more sensitive and caring towards each other. I hope you join in – no special skills or resources are required, just be yourself and talk to someone. You may be pleasantly surprised at what happens.

Time To Change is led by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness. If you’d like to find out more their website is here, and there are loads of resources available for you. I was particularly taken with this poster:

There are many other resources there too: from quizzes, games and puzzles to prompts on how to start a conversation. Please take time to visit their website: it is very informative and you’ll find helpful tip cards, like this one:

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece for Time To Change, but they didn’t use it – probably because I submitted it too late, and not in the way they prefer! But it gives a potted version of my story, and why I believe this to be so important, so is worth sharing again, I think:

I was diagnosed with depression in late 2011. After months of treatment, both with medication and counselling, I finally returned to work more than nine months later. Perhaps ironically, I worked for a large NHS Trust which provided mental health services – though I didn’t live in the Trust’s catchment area – and whilst I had had a fair amount of involvement with service users in my twenty years there, most of the people I worked with hadn’t.

When I first returned, initial reactions were mostly of the ‘I haven’t seen you for a while’ variety. It was clear to me that only a few people knew why I had been off work, and I decided early on that the best way to tackle this was to be open and honest with anyone who asked about it. Not that I shouted it from the rooftops, but I wanted people to know and understand why I had been away, what it meant for me, and what it might mean for them. Some seemed apprehensive – I think they feared I might ‘have a turn’ or do something strange! The difficulty with any mental health problem is that other people can’t see it, in the same way they can see a broken leg, for example. This adds some kind of aura, a mystique, and can instil in some a fear of the unknown and unseen. I didn’t want to start some kind of crusade, but I believed it important to share my experience with anyone who asked. After all, to all intents I was the same person they had known for years, so why should they now treat me differently? Some might have had an expectation that I had changed in some way, and I wanted to reassure them that whilst the illness was a part of me I was still that same ‘me.’ People who have suffered a mental illness deserve to be respected as themselves: the illness isn’t a badge they must wear or, worse, a stigma to be borne as some sign of weakness.

I retired a little over a year later, and having already started my own blog I was aware how important it is for fellow sufferers to know that they are not alone, that others have shared something similar. But that isn’t the same for those who have been lucky enough not to suffer. I probably had around fifty conversations with co-workers in that last year at work, and made a point of telling them a few key things:

1. There is no shame in having been diagnosed with any kind of mental illness.
2. It can happen to anyone, at any time.
3. It is far more prevalent than people imagine, and it was quite likely that other people we worked with had similar problems.
4. Whilst some may not, many will welcome an initial approach of the ‘is everything ok?’ type. It does help to talk, and an informal chat can often be all that is needed to help someone.
5. Don’t be judgemental – people need to be heard, not given well-meaning ‘diagnoses’ by friends who aren’t qualified to judge.
6. Having been diagnosed doesn’t change who you are, and shouldn’t change how others see you.

I’d like to think that, in my own little way, I did something to help understanding and awareness. The important part of this was that it was on a one to one basis: I’m a great believer in the need for efforts to be made to widen the general population’s knowledge on mental health, and this low key approach is a good way to do that. Just imagine how many could be enlightened if we all had just one chat!

As it says in the image below, one in four of us will be affected by mental health issues at some point in our lives. That is a huge number and, as I said in the piece I wrote (above) there are often no visible signs that someone is suffering. Mental health problems can be all-encompassing, taking over your life, and it can be incredibly valuable to feel that there is support for you. So, will you talk to someone tomorrow? Please? Pass it on!

 

Reprise: My Top Ten Depression Tips

Three years ago today I posted what has since become my third most liked post ever. This really pleases me, as the whole point of starting this off was to try to encourage others who might be suffering from depression by sharing my own experience. Many current readers won’t have seen this before, so I thought I’d mark its anniversary by sharing it again. If this helps just one person that will make it worthwhile – though of course I hope more than that will derive some support from it. If you are currently having a hard time I hope these thoughts help. I make no claims to any kind of professional background: these ‘tips’ are from the heart and experience.

This is what I posted:

MY TOP TEN DEPRESSION TIPS

A few weeks ago I was emailed via my Contact Me page by a website called TalkersTen.com, inviting me to write something for them. As you do, I did a little research to check out their site and their claim to get over 50,000 hits per day. They sent me a screenshot apparently proving that, but given that their Facebook page only had around 50 likes I was still a little sceptical. I should point out that this site is based (I think) in India, and isn’t to be confused with the better known American site Talkers.com. They promise to let you know within 48 hours if they will be using your piece, which is important to a small blogger like me, as they would claim copyright over what I wrote for them if they used it. Two weeks went by and I heard nothing, so I emailed them again yesterday and told them not to use what I had written, as I would be sharing it with my regular readers instead. My writing – my copyright!

The format used by TalkersTen.com is to go in ascending order, from 10 to 1, and though that isn’t really appropriate to a subject like depression, I did my best to fit in with them. As I said in that article, I’m not a doctor, or qualified to give medical diagnosis or advice. But I have experience, which can count for a lot! So, although those 50,000 daily readers of TalkersTen.com won’t see them, these are my top ten tips to help you get through depression, if you are unlucky enough to suffer it:

  1. Seek help

Try to be honest with yourself and seek help. The hardest part is to make that initial judgement on yourself, recognise that something might be wrong, and to do something about it, but if you don’t things may never improve. I finally plucked up the courage to call my doctor about four months after the first signs were there, but I had tried to put them out of my mind until the point where I just couldn’t do that any more. As a result, I was off work for nearly 10 months, when I may have been able to get back into my regular life much sooner if I had sought help earlier than I did.

  1. Talk to someone

Talk to friends and/or family: it can make such a difference if you know that others are aware of how you feel and can be there for you. If friends give up on you question how valuable they are as friends, maybe you don’t really need them in your life. Consider if you would be there for them if things were reversed: if you would, but they aren’t prepared to support you, drop them. It will make things worse for you if you waste time and energy worrying about why they are treating you the way they do. Find the people who show you that you can trust and rely on them – their support will be invaluable.

  1. Don’t shut yourself away

Don’t make the same mistake that I did and shut yourself away from other people, or block them out. People can help, and you need them, and I don’t just mean close friends and family by this. Even if you aren’t the type who makes conversation easily with strangers, don’t be afraid of mixing with people. Try if you can to get out of your home, even if it is just for a mooch around the shops, or maybe a coffee somewhere. The worst thing you can do is to isolate yourself – our brains can go into overdrive when we have a mental health problem, and trying to work it out on your own won’t solve anything.

  1. Don’t be afraid of it

Especially if this is the first time you have ever had such a problem, a mental health issue can be a very scary place. In many of us there is a natural tendency to fight against things we fear. Don’t! Try not to fight it: try to work around it and through it. If you treat it like a battle you’ll exhaust yourself. And you probably won’t have done anything constructive towards a longer-term improvement, either.

  1. Do something – anything

Try to do something – anything – to occupy your mind. If you can rebuild your ability to concentrate on activities, however trivial, it will help you take your mind off yourself. One of the signs that I was depressed was that I no longer enjoyed reading, watching TV or listening to music, all of which were a mainstay of my normal day. Part of this was that my illness meant that I couldn’t concentrate for very long, and ended up repeating what I had already done. I tried to read a novel, and must have read the first chapter at least five times before I gave up. But I can still recall the first time after I became ill when I managed to watch a TV programme for a whole hour, without losing concentration. That was five years ago, and the memory of that realisation is still very vivid to me, so I can’t understate the importance of persevering. It will help you through – I know that from experience.

  1. Take your meds

If you are prescribed medicine, take it! I know that it doesn’t work for everyone and you will hear people say disparaging things about dependence on anti-depressants. But depression is a form of chemical imbalance in the brain and the meds help to adjust that. If you feel uncomfortable about taking them, or if you think they are giving you side effects, talk this through with your doctor. Don’t decide on your own just to stop taking them, as this can do more harm than good.

  1. Eat and drink well

This is probably stating the obvious, as a healthy, balanced diet is always important to us, but particularly so when we are ill. Depression is an illness, and our body needs to be at its strongest to help us cope with any illness and, hopefully, to overcome it. It can be very difficult to go through the chore of cooking a meal when you are depressed, but do try to make the effort. Fruit and some vegetables can be eaten without the need for cooking, and they are all good for our health. There are plenty of simple recipes that take very little effort and help sustain us. Drink well too: regular liquids, especially water and juices, are essential. But try to resist any temptation towards alcohol: it doesn’t help! If your depression prevents you from eating, it will take longer to recover from it. Again, I know this from my own experience – a classic case of ‘do as I say, not as I did!’

  1. Exercise

Regular exercise is known to have lots of benefits. It can help you concentrate, sleep better and boost your self-confidence. The benefits of good physical health on your mental health – and vice versa – are well known, so it is important to take as much exercise as you can. This doesn’t have to be a strenuous gym session, even a walk around the block is better than doing nothing. Try it, you’ll feel better for it.

  1. Be proud of yourself

When you have depression, your self-esteem is usually very low. You have negative thoughts about yourself, or worse. But try to recognise that this isn’t the real you, it’s the illness speaking. I know how hard it can be, but try to think of the positives in your life: your achievements, your job, your family and friends. Look for the good things in all of these, and build an image of who you really are. Then be proud of yourself, and feel valued by yourself as well as by others.

  1. Never, ever give up hope

It is very easy, when you are depressed, to feel that things will never get better. Life seems impossible, and you question where it can go. But, again, this is the illness at work. I know it is hard to believe when things feel at their worst, but there really is a light at the end of that dark tunnel. Try to remember that, and never, ever give up hope.

I’m not pretending that this list is in any way definitive or exhaustive, and no doubt anyone who has experience of depression can tell me lots of things that work for them but which I’ve left out. However, these all have some meaning for me and, if you are a fellow sufferer, I hope that at least one of these ten tips is useful for you. 

Halloween – My Annual Reminder

The calendar moves inexorably towards another Halloween. Last year, as I have done on several occasions, I wrote about the commercialisation of this date and, in particular, one aspect of this: the stigmatisation of mental health in some of the costumes on offer. Things have undeniably improved since 2013, when two big retailers – Asda and Tesco – were forced to remove some costumes from sale after the understandable furore they generated. My 2018 piece is repeated below, and contains a link to what I said in 2013 about those companies.

Out of curiosity I revisited the two websites I named and shamed last year. On escapade.co.uk I found one costume directly labelled as ‘insane,’ which is listed as ‘new!’:

Likewise, partybritain.com only had one obvious costume:

As these were amongst 756 and 490 costumes on offer respectively, I guess you can call that an improvement. But even one such costume is one too many – when will these people realise that making money out of mocking others’ misfortune is just plain wrong? Sadly, similar costumes can also be found on the giant online sites like ebay.

I really wish there wasn’t a need for this reminder, but I’ll keep doing it until it doesn’t have to be said. Enjoy your Halloween celebrations, but not at the expense of others, please.

And this is last year’s post, which gives more detail:

HALLOWEEN – AGAIN

I’ve written several times over the years about how stigmatisation of mental illness can be very damaging, and in particular have focused on it at this time of year, as Halloween approaches.

When I was a kid Halloween wasn’t an event we marked in any way. Here in the UK we were busy making our guys for the forthcoming Guy Fawkes/Bonfire Night celebrations on 5th November, and hadn’t yet imported the commercialisation of Halloween from the US. So I’m sorry to say, American friends, that your celebration for this rather passes me by! That doesn’t mean that I don’t recognise its importance to you, but it does seem to me to be a little artificial for it to be ‘celebrated’ here. This is, perhaps, a little ironic as the origins of Halloween can be traced back to this side of the Atlantic, in a pagan festival mostly known (in Ireland and Scotland, anyway) as Samhain, though there are different names for similar festivals in other Celtic regions. The name ‘Halloween’ has been in existence since around the mid-18th century, and is a derivation of All Hallows’ Eve, i.e. the day before All Hallows’ Day, on which remembrance of the dead takes place. In the past, celebrations have included mummers and costumes, which I guess has been handed down to us through the generations in the way that people dress up: witches are an obvious outfit, but there are many others available, most of which leave me wondering what relevance they have!

But, as I said earlier, this was a tradition that hadn’t travelled to the part of England in which I spent my childhood. Not until modern day marketing and commercialism took over, that is. At some point over the past 25 years or so this has become a bigger event in this country, probably as a result of the way in which American popular culture has been transferred over here by TV programmes. Never one to miss an opportunity to make money, retailers have been falling over themselves to profit from Halloween. But in their doing so, the boundaries of taste have often been forgotten. I wrote five years ago about Asda – and to a lesser extent, Tesco – selling costumes that mocked mental illness. The message that these were giving children, that it was somehow acceptable to make fun of people with mental health problems, was appalling, and the retailers had to give in to the outcry and withdraw the products from sale. But even after that outcry you can still find such costumes for sale this year among the specialist online fancy dress retailers. Here are a couple of examples I found without too much effort. Firstly, from partybritain.com:

And secondly, from escapade.co.uk:

No doubt there are others deserving to be named and shamed but I was too disheartened to look any further. How can anyone believe this to be acceptable? This is a shameful way to make money, but I guess that as these companies are much smaller than the likes of Asda and Tesco they have managed to slip under the radar. That doesn’t make them any less guilty in my eyes, though.

Another depiction of mental health issues which I find objectionable is to be found in horror movies. To be honest, I have a very low gore threshold and don’t watch a great many horror movies, and don’t really understand the fascination they hold for so many. Each to their own, of course, but where I really draw the line is where someone who is mentally ill is the main character in a movie and their illness is used in a stigmatising way. You’ll know which movies I mean, I’m sure: how anyone can see these as entertainment is beyond me, though I do like Jamie Lee Curtis!

I have no problem with anyone wanting to celebrate Halloween, though I imagine most, either in the US or elsewhere, would be hard pressed to explain exactly what it is they are celebrating. But as these little posters from the admirable Time To Change organisation remind us, these celebrations should have absolutely nothing to do with mocking mental illness. These were actually created a couple of years ago but their message is still very valid and, sadly, remains relevant. There is nothing remotely funny about costumes and behaviour that mock those with mental health issues as ‘nutters,’ ‘mad’ or just ‘mental,’ when the word is used pejoratively.

 

Remember, Halloween is supposed to be the modern day version of an old pagan custom, which had nothing to do with mental illness. It is also significant in a religious sense – the day before All Hallows’ Day, which has been a Catholic day of note for centuries – and that also isn’t about mental ill health! The Time To Change website has eight helpful tips on how to enjoy Halloween without perpetuating the stigmatisation of mental health. They even include a little bit of historical knowledge in there so that you can impress your friends by knowing the meaning of the Halloween tradition. If you’re interested these tips can be found here and are well worth a look.

So please, by all means enjoy any celebrations you may be having, but don’t mock those who are unable to defend themselves against unfair stigmatisation.

Happy Halloween!