Feeling Good?

A post for Mental Health Awareness Week

Many of you have started following my blog in the past year or so, and may not be aware that I originally began this over four years ago to share my experience of depression, in the hope that it would help others. From the comments I’ve received since then it appears that this has happened far more than I could ever have hoped, although I admit to having strayed off message quite a lot since then. You will probably also be unaware that I ran a series of ‘Dates To Note’ about key days in the calendar, mostly around health and social care. They can be found from the menu above, if you’re interested. Not wanting this to become stale or repetitive – I can do that without setting myself up for it – I stopped these as a regular feature two or three years ago. But this week has prompted a slight return, to borrow a phrase from Jimi Hendrix.

I’m slightly confused by this – it doesn’t take much – but I have seen various references (mostly American, I think) to May being Mental Health Awareness Month whilst here in the UK this week, from 8th to 14th May, is Mental Health Awareness Week. So, we have two ‘Dates To Note’ though as I’m British I’m concentrating on our week. This is organised by the Mental Health Foundation, and you can find their site here. The MHF do a lot of good work campaigning for better mental health, and provide a wealth of useful information on mental health matters. I commend their site to you if you want to know more. If you are in the States the equivalent organisation there is HealthyPlace, and you can find their site by clicking on the ‘Stand Up’ logo at the top of the column to the right.

For this year’s Awareness Week the MHF is turning things on their head. As they put it themselves, ‘Rather than ask why so many people are living with mental health problems, we will seek to uncover why too few of us are thriving with good mental health.’ To support this they commissioned a piece of research which has found that, rather disappointingly, only 13% of us feel that we are thriving in this way. The report can be found here – it is fairly short and easily read, and includes a definition of what ‘thriving with good mental health’ means, in case you were wondering.

Having been diagnosed with depression five years ago, I am acutely aware that it is something which is never ‘cured.’ I’ve been off medication for more than two years now, but always have that underlying worry that I might slip back into ways which allow the depression to take hold again. My physical health has been far from good for the past two years, and this has rendered me more housebound than I would like. If I’m being brutally honest with myself, I know that this isn’t good for my mental health, but physical health needs are winning out at present. If you look at the MHF site you’ll find a brief survey to complete, which gives you an assessment of how well, or otherwise, you are thriving. It is only seven questions and takes a couple of minutes. Anyone who has been diagnosed with depression will at some point have completed an assessment like this with a doctor, though this one is slightly different in its focus. Having had a few recent pangs of concern, I approached this with some trepidation. As always with such questionnaires, the important thing is to answer as honestly as possible – lying to yourself is pointless! I took the survey, and this was my result:

Click to enlarge

To be frank, I was pleasantly surprised at this, and found some encouragement from it. I would encourage you to take the survey – and if your score is low please consider visiting your doctor to talk it through. I know from my own experience that hiding from yourself, failing to accept that you might need help, can be very damaging. I was eventually off work for more than nine months, and have always felt that this could have been much shorter if I’d accepted the need to do something sooner than I did. So do as I say, please, not as I did!

The flip side of this coin is that you could take this test and get a similar result to mine, and think everything is alright. But there are limitations to such tests, and if you are at all worried about your mental health – if you feel that you aren’t thriving – it would be remiss to think that your result means you don’t need to do anything. As I say, I’ve had my own concerns recently, and these won’t go away simply because I’m ‘around the national average.’ Our mental health is precious, and I’ll be taking good care of mine, including signing up for the MHF’s package mentioned in the screenshot above. I hope you do whatever you can to look after yourself.

Regular readers will know how important a role music plays in my life. Indeed, it is one of many factors which contribute to our mental wellbeing, and is used in therapy. You may have recognised that the title for this piece is borrowed from a song, the most famous version of which is this, by Nina Simone:

I trust that listening to that will have raised your spirits a little! Have a good day, and be well.

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.