Why Mental Health Month isn't enough, from someone living with the 'black dog'

As I’m sure all of you will know, May started on Wednesday. What less of you may know, however, is that May is World Mental Health Month, or MHM for short.

This is a month in which everyone comes together to promote advocacy for mental health support, share their stories and raise money for charities such as Mind and CALM. Millions of pounds are raised every year in the UK alone and thousands of people share their stories and pitch in, whether that be doorstep work such as asking for donations or volunteering at their local Mind charity shop.

There is no doubt that Mental Health Month is a good idea- mental illness is a worldwide crisis that only grows larger by the day.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of mental illnesses with names and diagnoses, and probably quite a few more that do not. I am far from a registered psychiatrist, so I will instead focus on only one of these illnesses- the one which I have had a fair amount of experience with. Clinical depression.

(Fun fact: I am quite often sad!)

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Depression is by far the most likely one to come to mind when saying ‘mental illnesses’. And that’s not just a coincidence.

FACT TIME!

According to statistics from Mind, the UK’s leading mental health charity, in the past week and estimated 1 in 6 people will have experienced a problem with their mental health. The most common is a mix of Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Depression, with the second being Major Depression. In 2016 alone, 5,688 suicides were reported as the cause of death. Between 2003 and 2013, 18,220 people in the UK took their own lives; 75% of those being

men. In fact, suicide is the leading killer of men worldwide aged between 20 and 49. It causes more deaths worldwide per year than AIDS, and one in fifteen people on average will have tried to take their own lives.

There can also be a variety of factors in the formation of depression in a person. It is not known if there are any concrete links, but depression is more common in those who have a lower than average wage or living standard, your job (air traffic controllers and dentists have the highest suicide rates per job) and if you are in an abusive relationship. It is also more likely to manifest if there is a family history of depression.

The symptoms of depression can vary greatly. Some people may experience few or no symptoms, while some may experience them all. The most common symptoms of depression being present are:

  • Constant low mood
  • Increased irritability
  • Change in eating habits (eating more or less than normal, or at strange times)
  • Change in sleeping habits (sleeping more or less than normal, or having to nap more often)
  • General apathy (lack of interest in anything)
  • Feeling anxious or worried
  • Being more tearful than normal
  • Thoughts of harming yourself or feeling you would be better off dead

If you are experiencing any of these, I implore you; get to a doctor and get it sorted before it gets too bad.

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Personally, I have had more ‘run-ins’ with the ‘black dog’ than I would like to admit. (I never liked the ‘black dog’ metaphor, as I love dogs. I have a dog. I will go out of my way to pet dogs. I especially love dogs with human names like Doug and Wilbur. But it’s the best fitting metaphor.)

 I was diagnosed in April of 2017 after a particularly rough period. I was lucky enough to have family and friends who were clued up and noticed something was off about me, and eventually I got to a doctor.

Since then, it’s been up and down overall. I will have good days and bad days; the good days are great; it feels like I am a new person and I can take on the world. Some days, however, I wake up and I cannot even get out of bed.

I’ve been told by many people and professionals to not try to find out if I’m feeling depressed every time I wake up, because normally if you search for something you will find it. But sometimes, it’s just there. Your brain feels like grey sludge and your arms and legs have had 50 kilo weights anchored to them. Even getting out of bed and getting a glass of water from the kitchen to take your pills can feel like an insurmountable task. Imagine making it to 9:30am lectures after a night at Tap n Tin, then times that by 20.

I have an odd situation; my mood can change regardless of what’s going on in my life without warning. I could be at a house party or something, having a fantastic time, and then suddenly it’s there. As sudden as turning on a light switch. There are no real triggers for it to manifest; it just turns up at a time of its own choosing and I have to deal with it, kind of like a SouthEastern train.

If you have never experienced a bad depressive episode, you are incredibly fortunate. But you will struggle to understand, so the only way I can describe it is like you have a misbehaving toddler with you all the time. Sometimes, the toddler is quite well behaved; you can do what you like and the toddler will just go along with it without a care in the world. But sometimes, the toddler will turn vicious and punch you in the gonads. So you have to be walking around all the time, doing what you normally do, all the while anticipating the next time this small child is going to smack you in your crown jewels.

I have had trying times, without a doubt. I will definitely have more trying times in the coming weeks, months or years. I have had people tell me that it’s ‘all in your head’ (well, yes, where else would it be? My kidneys?) and that ‘happiness is a choice’ (my body seems to choose not to be happy then, and I have to go along with it!). I have had my brain tell me I am not worth recovery and that I should just shut up shop and die. But I have also been blessed with an amazing network of support from family and friends. They have heard me out and commiserated with me when I was feeling naff, and made sure I was feeling alright even on the good days. I won’t name them here, but you all know who you are, and I can’t thank you enough!

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Now, back to the point in hand.

Mental Health Month is a fantastic idea and it does a lot of good. But for people who live with a serious mental illness, it isn’t just assigned to a month. We live it all day, every day, and while a lot of good work is done in May, I would much rather a bit of good work is done every month. Our challenges and suffering isn’t just tied to one month, so don’t let your advocacy be.

By all means, post about supporting mental health on social media. It is a great way to get the word out there. But don’t step away from someone when their mental illness gets ugly or doesn’t portray the ‘artistic’ or ‘beautiful’ sides of it. News flash; mental illness isn’t beautiful and shouldn’t be trendy. It is shitty, and I would not wish it on anybody.

Don’t hold such a stigma to it or talking about it. Men in particular are more likely to keep it bottled up (trust me, this is incredibly awkward to write as a post for me!). Recently, we have had the tragic news that Avicii took his own life in Oman. I saw quite a few comments on posts about it on Twitter calling him a ‘coward’ for taking his own life. If you honestly believe that suicide is the ‘coward’s way out’, just do me a favour and remove yourself from my social media lists right now. The act of taking your own life is the hardest thing anybody could ever do, and is only resorted to when the person decides that living is causing far too much pain for them to deal with. We don’t call cancer patients cowardly for not fighting the cancer hard enough, but somehow this is okay when it comes to mental illness.

If a friend is struggling, be there for them. I was lucky to have people around me who were there for me, but not everyone is as lucky as I am. Be a friend.

And finally, as cheesy as it sounds, it DOES get easier. It may not get better, but every day it will be a tiny bit more bearable. Sometimes that is all you can ask for.

And now I’ll sign off with an excerpt from Matt Haig’s book Reasons to Stay Alive. If you are struggling in any way, I recommend you give it a read. Matt is a fantastic author and a revolutionary mental health advocate.

“You will, one day, experience joy that matches this pain.”

“You will cry euphoric tears at the Beach Boys, you will stare down at a baby’s face as she lies asleep in your lap, you will make great friends, you will eat delicious foods you haven’t tried yet.”

“You will be able to look at a view from a high place and not assess the likelihood of dying from falling.”

“There are books that will enrich you, films you will watch while eating extra-large buckets of popcorn, and you will dance and laugh and have sex and go for runs by the river and have late-night conversations and laugh until it hurts.”

“Life is waiting for you. You might be stuck here for a while, but the world isn’t going anywhere.”

“Hang on if you can. Life is always worth it.”