Tag Archives: mental illness

Time to Talk Day 2016

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Time to Talk Day 2016

The ‘Time to Change’ campaign has been instrumental in tackling stigma around mental health and on 4 February, their ‘Time to Talk’ day encourages people to talk openly about mental illness.

I’ve suffered with depression and anxiety for most of my life and I can vouch for the fact that talking about it has helped and probably saved my life.

However, I feel I must issue a warning to people who may be thinking of taking the plunge and doing some talking. You may talk to lots of people before you find anyone that wants to understand. You may talk to people and get a bad reaction, or no reaction at all. You might be starting therapy and you could well get someone great to talk to. Or your therapist may respond with crass, shocking or downright stupid comments.

When you have mental health issues, you already feel low, useless and unworthy so if you talk about your illness and get an unfavourable response, it can make you feel a whole lot worse.

Having said that, you will also find that there are a ton of amazing people out there who do want to understand and try their very best to help. It might take a while and you will have to test the water with friends, family and sources of professional help to weed out the good, bad and useless.

I’m used to discussing mental health now, but it has been a long process of trial and error and a steep learning curve. To anyone thinking of opening up, I have a few tips on what to realistically expect:

1) Stigma around mental health is usually borne out of fear, ignorance and denial. It is everywhere. You could find a complete stranger at the bus stop chatting to you about ‘dangerous schizophrenics’ and also hear a comment like ‘what have you got to be depressed about?’ from your partner. Prepare to be surprised, but don’t let it stop you talking or challenging any negativity which comes along.

2) Lots of people don’t really know what to say when you open up and that’s to be expected as the norm. Be patient, ask if they have any questions or worries. When talking about mental illness let people know why you are telling them. Mention that you do not need advice, suggestions or ‘fixing’, you are just being honest and trying to raise awareness. Ask for specific help if you need it. Sometimes people will want to support you but don’t know how. This could be things like doing shopping, cooking or cleaning if you are struggling or phoning more regularly.

3) Stigma comes in all kinds of interesting packages from unexpected sources. Along with misconceptions and judgements about mental illness you could find yourself ignored, ridiculed and disbelieved by people who are meant to be helping you. For years I was told by doctors and therapists that I wasn’t depressed or anxious. One GP remarked that I was ‘too pretty’ to be depressed. My first CBT appointment was spent desperately trying to convince the therapist of my feelings. He remarked that he had ‘worked with people in hospitals who were too depressed to wipe their own arses’ and as I could wipe my own arse, I was apparently fine. A psychiatrist also told me I would be ‘fine’ because I could articulate my problems very well. I’m not suggesting you become a gibbering unwashed wreck, but watch out for being judged for your presentation and be prepared to challenge it.

4) Some people will really struggle with you opening up, like family, friends and anyone close to you. It may come as a shock that you have disclosed or discussed a mental health issue and they might react badly. Don’t let this make you feel worse. Don’t apologise for how you are but also don’t expect people to understand straight away. Changing attitudes and removing barriers to discussion takes time and effort and not just from you. I think it’s worth pointing out that some people may never understand or be open to trying no matter how much information or time you give them. I think it’s best to just accept this and move on without letting it crush your confidence. For everyone who struggles or reacts badly there will be just as many positive or neutral reactions that you can work with.

5) Timing is everything. A campaign like Time to Talk is a great opportunity to take a leap of faith, as you can use it to bolster your confidence and know that thousands of other people are talking too. They also have a range of information you can give people if the act of physically talking is difficult. But if it’s not your time to talk yet, that’s OK. You have to be ready and if you never want to talk, that is absolutely fine.

Despite the negative pitfalls I’ve mentioned, I feel that talking about mental health is not only worth it, but hugely necessary. Through persevering with opening up, I’ve found the confidence to deal with and challenge any shocking, surprising or negative reactions which may come along. Be prepared, but don’t let it stop you if it’s something you’ve been thinking about doing.

For information, support and resources about the Time to Talk campaign you can visit http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/

This article has also been published in The Huffington Post UK –

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/laura-roche/time-to-talk-day-2016_b_9098444.html

How to survive mental illness under a Tory government

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Let’s be honest, it wasn’t ideal having mental health issues under the previous government, but now the Tories are in power, their proposed austerity cuts to services and benefits have understandably caused shock-waves and concern for sufferers.

The problem is, having a mental illness means you already feel vulnerable and dis-empowered. To know that the struggles you already face are only going to get more difficult is a slap in the face from the Conservatives.

I’ve needed more than my fair share of interventions and benefits over the years and my mental health CV boasts an impressive selection of services used.

All of this has had a huge positive impact. The help I’ve received has not only kept me alive but in the case of some therapies, changed my life.  I’d even go as far as saying my mind is in good order now. But what if I need help in the future? What about the other one in four people that are still affected by mental health issues, or who are only just seeking help for the first time?

It’s ironic that these cuts to services coincide with a rise in mental health awareness campaigns such as Rethink’s ‘Time To Change’ and a growing number of celebrities coming forward to urge us that being open about mental illness is a positive thing.

Will it do any good to speak up about mental health if the Tories have taken their financial cleaver and butchered support services and benefits?

I think it will and it’s important to remember there’s still much that you can do to take back power and feel you have some control over the situation. It’s time to stop circulating that photo of David Cameron wearing a Thatcher wig on Facebook and think about what we can actually do to create change.

The first thing to bear in mind is that you always have a voice and it is your most powerful weapon, no matter how much it may feel as though your needs have been silenced. It is so important to speak up and talk about mental health and the struggles you face, not least to fight the stigma which surrounds the subject. Secondly, you always have the choice to fight back against any decisions or actions taken against you.

It can be difficult to fight from a position of illness and disability but as a group collective voice, more can be achieved than going it alone. Plus, it’s easier. That doesn’t mean to say you shouldn’t write to your M.P, sign petitions and campaign individually if you are able to, but getting your opinions heard on a grand scale involves aligning yourself with as many powerful organisations, groups and people as possible and letting them do the talking with you and for you.

Being aware of and getting involved in the work of the leading mental health organisations and charities is crucial. I’m closely following MIND, SANE and Rethink, all of whom provide advice, information and support on all aspects of mental health as well as helping you to feel you’re not alone. Although they shouldn’t become a substitute for individual specialised help, they are somewhere to turn in the meantime.

Noticing which key public figures and celebrities are supporting mental health causes is also a great way to ‘piggy back’ your voice into a wider arena; let them know via Twitter, Facebook page or even old-fashioned email or letter that you support the work they are doing.

Or you could always go straight to the top and tweet David Cameron some suggestions for change. Without getting too troll-y, it might give him something to read over his morning coffee, although I’m guessing he will be too busy decimating the NHS to reply.

Find other people who are in the same position as you, through community or online forums and support groups. Information and knowledge shared is power. There are some excellent Facebook groups such as Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) which offer advice and support to anyone affected by austerity cuts, also the non-profit group Fightback4Justice.co.uk offers advice on benefits and will help you to fill in those designed-to-catch-you-out forms. Don’t forget, there are also national organisations such as Disability Rights UK and the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, both of which offer free advice and support.

You could also start your own petition, write a blog or create a group to keep abreast of Tory developments and discuss ideas with a community of like-minded people. There are lots of anti-austerity protests happening around the country too, if you are well enough to turn up and wave a placard.

The one thing you shouldn’t do is keep quiet or accept decisions made against you at face value.

Because that’s what the Tories want.

P.S I tweeted David Cameron but he hasn’t replied.

Laura Roche ‏@flyingkipper  19m19 minutes ago

@David_Cameron Please could you stop making cuts to mental health services and benefits? Thanks!

*This piece has also been published in the Huffington Post UK and as soon as I work out how to do hyperlinks, I will be sure to hyperlink it. In the meantime, here is a regular style link –

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/laura-roche/mental-illness_b_7493964.html

How do you know when to come off anti-depressants?

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Medication can play a vital role in managing mental health issues. I’ve been on an anti-depressant called Dosulepin since December 2009 and at the end of last year, felt stable enough to try to come off it.

However, my GP told me that Dosulepin is one of the hardest anti-depressants to come off. It’s an older, tricyclic version and there aren’t many people still on it. Which begs the question, ‘Why was I put on it in the first place?’ I don’t suppose I’ll ever know; I was at a different practice in 2009 and was in no fit state to question the doctor at the time.

At Christmas I was taking 150mg a day and my GP advised a very slow and gradual reduction by 25mg to start with. Imagine my surprise when I felt like a complete mental raving lunatic within a week. It was so unbearable that I immediately went back up to 150mg.

A few months passed and I decided to have another go at reducing the dose. I dropped by 25mg again and the exact same thing happened. I decided to try and withstand the withdrawal effects and mustered up all my strength and determination. I had two weeks of intense mood swings, feeling unsettled and bad nightmares, but sweated it out as I can be very stubborn and didn’t want to be beaten by a tablet. It was hard to separate the feelings from my sense of ‘myself’ but tried to see it as a purely biochemical response; a change in brain chemistry that was bound to make me unsettled. It didn’t mean I had lost control or slipped back into depression. Things stabilised at the end of the second week and it seemed like my body had become used to the change so I dropped my dose by another 25mg. This immediately made me feel I had been thrown into turmoil again and I noticed that my anxiety, which had never been far away, had now reared its head again with a vengeance.

It’s been two months since the last reduction and although my GP is keen for me to keep dropping the dose, I now don’t feel confident enough to attempt this.
I realised there were a lot of psychological issues coming up that I was confused about. For one, I can’t remember what I was really like before the anti-depressants. I don’t know what I will be getting back to and I don’t know what my ‘normal’ was. I’m not sure if I’m permanently changed now from life experiences and simply being older and I don’t know how I will know when I am ok enough not to need the tablets.

I do remember that I always felt things intensely, always felt anxious  and always struggled with low moods, even without the bereavement that pushed me over the edge and onto anti-depressants.

During the last two months of being on 100mg, I’ve definitely felt different and not in a good way. I’ve settled into feeling generally low and noticing that I’m struggling a lot with my Neutropenia and M.E. My health problems have always been difficult to cope with, but I have a new sense that I’m at the end of my tether with them and can’t take it any more. They are lifelong conditions though, so I need to find a way around this! But do I need to have come off the tablets completely and had a ‘settling in’ to the new brain chemistry period to really know how I am going to deal with things?

The way I’m feeling right now is that I’m having to constantly draw on everything I’ve learned from counselling and CBT in the last five years to keep a grip on my mood. My anxiety can be all-consuming and whether it’s a biochemical withdrawal reaction or not, it is difficult to cope with. It’s knocking my confidence and it’s demoralising that this is how I am without a third of my tablets. After two months, I’m obviously through the turbulent upheaval of the last reduction and this is what I’ve been left with. I’m thinking maybe I’m just one of those people who needs medication and I should not try to reduce the dose further. I don’t have a problem with that, but Dosulepin has some pretty nasty side-effects if you take it long term and if I’m going to be on tablets, I don’t think these are the best choice.

I’m intrigued to know what’s on the other side though and to see if I could cope without them. I’ll never know if I don’t try. I don’t want lack of confidence to stop me trying, but I also don’t want to take risks with my mental health, as its taken most of the last five years to rebuild it.

Ultimately, I want to feel as ok as possible and as though I am coping and I don’t mind taking tablets to achieve this. I don’t want to come of the tablets for the sake of it, or stay on them for the sake of it, but this period is a useful experiment in seeing where the boundaries are between the tablets and my own mind. I’m surprised it’s so hard to reduce the dose and also surprised that a lot of my old ways of feeling have resurfaced so for now, I’ll tread carefully and think long and hard about whether to drop the dose any further.

Has anyone else experienced similar difficulties? How do you know whether you should come of anti-depressants or not?

 

Food and Mood – how to eat well in order to manage depression and anxiety

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Food and Mood – how to eat well in order to manage depression and anxiety

The link between food and mood is well documented and scientifically proven. We all know its important to eat well, but when you suffer with mental health issues like depression and anxiety, it’s even more essential to maintain a good diet. What you do or don’t eat can have a drastic effect on how you feel and can make the difference between improving or worsening your symptoms. Mental health charity MIND report that links have been demonstrated between low levels of Omega 3 oils (found in oily fish) and depression. It’s also been shown that too much caffeine can make anxiety worse.

However, Action on Depression discovered in a survey by the Food and Mood project that of the 200 people who took part, 88% said that changing their diet contributed significantly to improving their mood or mental health.

The trouble is, when you feel down, anxious or unstable, the last thing you care about is how much oily fish you ate that week. You don’t care about eating well, or even eating at all. This isn’t a choice most of the time. It’s the most natural thing in the world to respond to how your body feels and if you over-ride it, you can end up with some unpleasant consequences. I suffered a period of extreme anxiety a few years ago which resulted in me losing 2 stones. People though that I didn’t want to eat, or that I wasn’t ‘trying’ but the reality was that I simply couldn’t swallow because my throat was clenched too tight. My body was paralysed with tension for most of the time. If I forced myself to eat, I would be sick afterwards. Interestingly, when I suffered from mild depression I ate more, but my most severe depression resulted in a nil by mouth situation. I knew that none of these responses were ideal, but it’s hard to over-ride them or even try to care when you are in the thick of it.

As I also suffer from chronic physical health conditions, I had to try and make myself care, if only to stop these illnesses getting worse and adding to the overall amount of problems I eventually needed to overcome.

Rather than putting pressure on myself to shop and then cook wonderful healthy meals when I didn’t feel like it, I decided it would be better to work on damage limitation and being realistic about what I could eat when I was severely anxious.

One thing I took advantage of was that I was more likely to eat if I was with other people. The only problem being that when you feel depressed or anxious, it is a natural impulse to isolate yourself and let your relationships slide. As I have mentioned in one of my previous posts, ‘Depression and Intuition’, I believe the best way to manage depression is to do the exact opposite of what you feel like doing. It’s not always easy to know what you need when you feel down, but I’ve found that isolating myself makes everything a million times worse. So if you feel like you want to isolate yourself, do the opposite and meet people, especially at lunch or other meal times. See if the company, stimulation and smell of food can rouse you a little. It often did with me, even when I was convinced I wouldn’t order anything.

If you are left to your own devices, try to monitor and be aware of what is going in your mouth. It can be a good idea to keep a food diary to record what you eat and see if there is any correlation with your mood. My depressed food choices centred around the sugar, fat and carbohydrate food groups. If I ate, it was usually toast, crisps, chocolate or cakes. Or anything that was lying around the house that took less than 5 seconds to open. I was definitely a ‘comfort’ eater but then the more depressed I felt, the fewer calories passed my lips. When I realised how little I was eating during anxious episodes, I knew I had to take action. The result of my poor eating habits were definitely reflected in my equally poor mental health.

The trick I found was to try and keep a steady flow of nutrients through the body, in an easy and hassle free format. Sometimes this may mean forcing yourself to eat, but it is necessary and worth it. When I started to make changes to my diet I noticed that my mood swings were less frequent, I was less irritable and my anxiety levels were a lot lower.

Instead of quick-fix snacks of chocolate, crisps and cakes, I tried quick-fix healthier options instead such as yoghurt, fruit and nuts. All of which can be opened in less than 5 seconds and do not require cooking. I also bought bags of ready chopped salad and ate them with pre-cooked mackerel fillets. I’d cut off a corner of cheese as a snack, or if I couldn’t be bothered with that I had Babybel miniature cheese, which comes in its own individual portions. I discovered you can buy cooked wholegrain rice in pouches and had this with cooked prawns and microwave vegetables. Wholegrain cereals and muesli were also easy to eat.

Soups were my main depression/anxiety go-to food choice. I would recommend the ones with ring-pulls as finding a tin opener can be just too hard when you feel bad. Soups are comforting, easy to swallow and can be relatively healthy. Some of the ‘Farmer’s market’ style tins have enough ingredients in that they could easily pass as a full meal.

All of these are a good compromise between what you would prefer to eat and what you should actually be eating.

I also found that eating small snacks throughout the day instead of full meals was more achievable and realistic.

I’ve managed to make a habit out of making healthier food choices, to the point where I now feel instantly terrible if I slip up and eat badly. It is worth making a few changes, even if it seems like a big effort.

Does anyone have any other quick and healthy food recommendations? Please share in the comments box below!

Is there anything positive about having a mental illness?

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Is there anything positive about having a mental illness?

Having a mental illness is difficult, challenging and supremely negative in many ways.  It can cause untold stress and ruin or end lives. At first glance it doesn’t seem like there is anything positive that could be gained. When you are living with the awful reality of it, every day can seem like its suffering for sufferings sake.

I can verify from my own struggles with anxiety and depression that both have been dreadful experiences. However, during recovery periods and times of wondering what the point of it all was, I realised there were positive aspects I could take from my difficulties.

The mental health journey is one I would have preferred not to take, but in travelling this road I can’t deny I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve questioned everything and pulled myself apart in therapy in an attempt to understand and help myself better. Its been interesting and fascinating to learn why I am the way I am.  Depression forced me to look at everything in my life that wasn’t working and to get better, I had to make changes.

My problems put me in touch with a part of myself that maybe I wouldn’t have seen had I never struggled in this way. I’ve learnt self-awareness and I’ve begun to question my thoughts, actions and beliefs. Now I know who I am and what drives me, plus I have a wealth of experience in dealing with my demons. Without mental health issues, I may never have got to know myself so well, never made positive changes and never reached the point I’m at now of feeling I’ve evolved through a thousand lifetimes.  I’ve changed and grown to the point where I feel I’m a different person entirely. I’ve certainly had value for money out of my existence on the planet, that’s for sure!

I look around and see people who have stayed pretty much the same their entire lives and  I’m glad that I can see such a process of learning and growth in my life. In spite of the circumstances which caused the illness, I would rather be like this than be someone who never scratched the surface of their existence.

Mental illness has made me search hard for purpose and meaning in life as depression is the absence of both. In order to get through it, I had to find out what the point was, for me. To survive it, I couldn’t coast along and if I ignored these feelings, my depression was made worse.  It’s made me work hard, not only to overcome my problems but to achieve things in life. I’ve found both motivation and ambition through feeling so bad.

The worse I felt, the bigger the personal changes I made to get myself out of it. Depression made me take more risks. When you have felt so bad that you don’t want to live anymore, you don’t have anything to lose. I’ve pushed myself in the direction of all my goals because the worst-case scenario was never as bad as the feelings I’d already felt.

I also think that my problems have given me a compassion and empathy for others that I may not feel so intensely had I never struggled myself. My experiences meant I forged deep connections with others who were struggling and I now have a strong desire to help people understand and work through their difficulties. Without depression and anxiety, I may never have noticed or cared about other people’s problems to the extent that I do.  I may never have found myself in a job I love, supporting young people or found that writing this blog could help me and other people too.

I’ve also learned to live in the moment and appreciate the here and now. It’s not always easy to know when depression and anxiety will strike, how long they will last or how badly they will affect me this time around. These days, if I’m feeling good, I savour and appreciate those times and try my utmost to make the most of them.

We know that the present is all we have , but I don’t think we always hold onto each moment and make a conscious effort to notice and experience it.

I’m more able to appreciate the small moments of joy and hold onto them to remember during the bad times. Having chronic health issues also has further reinforced my ability to be completely present in every well period of my life. It has given me perspective. I don’t need a lot of money, possessions a car or fancy holidays. Today, a bright sunny day and a great piece of cake are enough to bring a smile to my face.

The fact that I’m 42 and I’ve not killed myself from depression has given me confidence to deal with anything else life might throw at me. In the midst of a bad depressive episode, I find it difficult to say anything nice about myself, but now I’m well I can see that I must be strong and determined otherwise I would never have got through it. Having anxiety in particular has given me tenacity; each minute of feeling so awful is stretched out to feel like a lifetime, so I’ve had to learn how to ride it out and develop good coping skills.

To be honest, I was concerned when I started this blog that I wouldn’t find enough positive things to mention. I’m surprised that I can see so much good in such difficult circumstances. I know there isn’t always a point to what happens in life, but I’m glad I’ve found the point of what I’ve been through.

Can anyone else see positive outcomes of having a mental illness?

The Sanctuary

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The Sanctuary

Recently, a new mental health facility called The Sanctuary opened in Manchester, UK. The first of its kind, it offers people struggling with emotional or mental distress a chance to access emergency overnight support without having to endure the trials and tribulations of going to A+E.

All I can say is, about time. Up until its opening on 10th September this year, there were two distinct pathways available to people in the North West requiring immediate mental health intervention. If you had money, you followed a road paved with gold until you ended up at the luxury surroundings of somewhere like The Priory. Or if you were like me, a pauper reliant on the NHS, you headed to your nearest Accident and Emergency department and took your place on the cold metal chairs with the bleeding, screaming and inebriated.

I’ve done more than a few 6+ hour waits on those chairs, which are screwed to the floor to prevent them being used in a violent attack. During that time, my own distress which I thought had already hit rock bottom, escalated to several layers below it from the trauma of being sat in such an inappropriate environment . Then, when my name was finally called, the humiliation and degradation of trying to explain my complete inability to cope to a disinterested triage nurse nearly finished me off completely. From there I was moved to a private room, which sounds good but it isn’t. It’s completely bare, save for 3 plastic chairs and it’s painted in ‘hospital green’ a shade that is not found anywhere on the Dulux colour chart. There are large sections chipped off for that ‘shabby chic’ feel without the chic. Then anywhere between another 1 and 3 hours later, an on duty psychiatrist or member of the mental health crisis team appears to take down your life story.

At the very point where the visit to A+E has pushed you fully into wanting to end it all, you have to delve into the recesses of your childhood memories and significant mental health events leading up to you being in that green room of doom. Articulating your thoughts in the middle of a mental health crisis is not easy. You are required to think in a straight line when the inside of your head resembles a jumble sale. You have to explain why you have come to A+E in this state and what you would like them to do about it. You have to answer the unanswerable.

At this point you are also desperate for them to be nice and look at you with empathy and concern. Sometimes this happened and I have sobbed with relief at the human connection. But other times I have felt lower than I ever thought possible when I’ve bared my soul to these complete strangers and been left feeling as though I’d been interviewed by a market researcher on the street.

Of course, I understand that they have to follow safeguarding procedures and establish whether I am a risk to myself or others. I know that A+E mental health staff don’t have the time or resources to really offer much in the way of comfort or reassurance, but it adds an extra level of suffering to an already dreadful experience to feel you are on a hospital conveyor belt. If you are not about to do yourself or someone else terrible damage, you are pretty much dischargable within the next hour, with your mental state not that different from when you walked in. Don’t get me wrong, if you are suicidal and can’t see a way past that, A+E is the right place to go. But there is a huge ‘grey area’ of people struggling to manage long-term mental health conditions, who may end up there because there was simply nothing in place to stop their crisis escalating beforehand.

That’s why a place like The Sanctuary is a revelation. It is run by experienced staff and volunteers with personal experience of mental health issues. It provides a range of support including offering a space to talk, managing depression, anxiety and panic attacks and assistance with coping after a crisis has passed. The most crucial fact is that it’s open from 11pm to 9am, so it’s available when most other services are closed and when your problems feel a million times worse.

The second most crucial fact is that there is not an inch of chipped hospital green paint anywhere. On entering the reception area you are instantly soothed by the soft cream and teal colour scheme. There are leather couches, pictures of sunsets and best of all, miniature rocket lava lamps. As Tesco say, ‘every little helps’.

The Sanctuary is based at the Kath Locke Centre, 123 Moss Lane West, Moss Side, Manchester. You can self-refer by calling 0161-637-0808. Health care and other professionals may also refer clients to the service by calling this number. You can also find out more by visiting www.selfhelpservices.org.uk.

If only there were similar facilities available everywhere, but this is an excellent start.

World Mental Health Day 2013 – Depression and Intuition

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World Mental Health Day 2013 – Depression and Intuition

For this year’s World Mental Health Day I want to highlight an issue I’ve blogged about before – the relationship between Depression and Intuition. One of the most frustrating aspects of depression is that feeling of being completely out of synch with yourself. When I am well, or ‘sub-clinical’ as they say, I have a great sense of what I should do, what I need, who is good for me and who isn’t. I follow what I feel in my gut to be right, and it generally means everything works out just fine. When I’m really on top of my game, I almost find myself having a ‘sixth sense’. I get a prediction of a situation before I am involved in it, dream answers to problems and pick up intuitively what people are thinking and feeling.

If only this were the case when I was depressed. The illness totally messes up my internal regulators and I have tended to act and react in ways that are not always in my own best interests.

I’ve now got over 20 years experience of depression and my manual of coping skills has the heading, ‘Do the opposite of what your intuition is telling you’.

For mild and moderate depression, I have found that if you do the opposite of the following depressed impulses, it can have a dramatic positive effect on your mood and recovery:

1) Isolating yourself. This feels very powerfully like the best thing you could do, when it is actually the worst. In my experience it stemmed from thinking people wouldn’t want to spend time with me when I was depressed and also not feeling able to communicate how I felt. The truth as I discovered, is that people still like you even when you feel bad. Plus, you don’t need to feel ashamed of how you feel. Practice explaining it and anyone who is worthy of your time and attention will try to understand.

2) Letting your routine slip. I’ve realised that routine is a powerful anchor in a world of mood-swings and feeling shitty. You may not feel up to your routine or even want to engage in it, but forcing yourself to do things stops that awful sense that you have been sucked into an abyss and lost control of your life.

3) Staying in bed all day. As a teenager and early twenty-something, I felt like I was listening to my body and mind when I indulged my depressed need to hide in bed. I took part in marathon bed-ins which could have outshone John and Yoko. I now think that this is possibly the worst possible way to deal with depression. It is a hard and sometimes Herculean effort to rise from your pit in the throes of doom. But if you don’t, you have missed out on all the things that can pick you up, like daylight, fresh air, movement, interaction with the world. Humans were not designed to sleep all day, even when ill.

4) Eating and drinking crap, or not eating at all. I had absolutely no awareness of the body/mind connection in my early depressed years. I thought nothing of starting the day with a Sayers cheese and onion pasty, a can of coke and a Mars bar. The rest of the day was filled with chips, pizza and copious amounts of vodka. When extremely depressed, I find it hard to eat at all. But the maths here is very easy to calculate. Bad eating and drinking on top of depression = feeling even more fucked up. It can all seem like such a massive effort, but forcing yourself to eat the opposite of what you want to eat can make a big difference. I’ve noticed that eating pasta, fruit and vegetables does indeed help. If I’m at rock bottom and it’s difficult to find the will to eat, I sip fruit smoothie and fill in the gaps with a vitamin tablet. I gave up alcohol over 13 years ago and will do a separate blog post about that. Suffice to say that drinking and mental health problems do not mix well.

5) Letting yourself go – appearance and personal hygiene. To stop this happening, it involves effort and willpower at a time when both are in short supply. There may not seem to be any point in looking your best, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. We all have some sort of getting ready routine which prepares us for the day. This is even more important to hold onto as your mood slips south, as you don’t want your dignity to disappear with it. Plus, you are less likely to get out, interact and see people if you haven’t had some sort of wash and brush-up. If you wear make-up, there is something to be said for putting a slick of lippy in between you and the world.

For severe depression, I’ve found that it’s a lot more tricky. I’m only able to draw on reversing intuition to manage depression when it’s in the early or developing stages. The rules are totally different when you are at the bottom of hell. You can’t force yourself to do things and it can be wrong and inappropriate to try. However, I like to think that what I’ve learned has stopped some of my depressive episodes escalating into the worst-case scenario.

It’s worth the effort to challenge yourself. Answer the negative voices back when they pipe up about not wanting to get up, eat or engage with the world. These days, I find a simple ‘fuck off’ will suffice.

Alcohol and Mental Health

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Alcohol and Mental Health

The link between alcohol and mental health problems is undisputed and long established. A study by charity Alcohol Concern showed that during a 12 month period, there were 72,000 hospital admissions with a diagnosis of mental and behavioural disorders due to alcohol. The same study also revealed that 65% of suicides are linked to excessive drinking.

There is some debate over which came first, the alcohol abuse or the mental health issues. However, it has been conclusively proved that heavy drinking can cause neuropsychiatric disorders in people who were not already previously diagnosed and it can exacerbate existing mood swings, anxiety and depression. The problems are intensified in young people and a US study by the same charity showed that 80% of adolescents with alcohol problems also had a psychiatric disorder.

I started drinking at 16 and I also had mental health issues. Both started at about the same time and undoubtedly each made the other worse.

I was the Queen of self-medicating in my early teens and twenties. It was the easiest thing in the world when faced with a tempestuous mental state to dull, alter or obliterate it with a quick drink or ten. I found that after a drink I was fun and confident. My problems floated off into the sunset, with my inhibitions duly following suit.

I’m not sure when I crossed the line from fun party girl into heavy drinker, but it all escalated at University when I suddenly had access to a student loan. Before long, every stub in my cheque book was for Threshers off-license. I was studying Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Sylvia Plath that great alcoholic and mentally ill sector of American literature heavyweights. I felt I was in some pretty cool company. As long as I kept my head away from gas ovens, I thought I could rock through my degree and everything would be just fine and dandy. I sat my finals drunk and came out with my B.A Hons exactly like I’d planned.

Then I drank after graduating because there were no jobs and I was fed up of doing voluntary work and it not leading anywhere. I had to downgrade from vodka to cheap wine due to income restrictions, but there was no way I was stopping.

It will come as no surprise to hear that drinking did not help my problems one little bit. It made them spectacularly worse. Alcohol is a depressant, so drinking it if you already suffer from depression is a ridiculously bad idea. I had terrible hangovers, mood swings and anxiety. The temporary relief and numbness from my feelings was short-lived and they returned with a vengeance when I sobered up the next day. I found that I was needing more and more alcohol to achieve the same effect and it wasn’t fun any more. It was something I needed to get through the day and I was in a mess. I felt lost, useless and unable to cope. The very worst thing was I couldn’t even generate any artistic output from my turmoil. I wasn’t using any of my skills or qualifications and there was no great work of literature bursting forth out of my pain.

Gradually my problems escalated to the point where I was now also self-harming regularly. I’d become used to spending my evenings drinking, self-harming and visiting A+E to get stitches. During one such visit I discovered I’d almost severed a nerve to my hand. It scared the hell out of me and was the wake-up call I needed.

I realised that if I didn’t take action I was going to be an alcoholic forever. I’d lost sight of whether the alcohol or depression was the bigger problem. They had fused together in a terrible co-dependent hybrid. I was frightened and mortified by the damage I was causing myself. I knew I couldn’t cut down or be someone that only has a drink at social events. I’m an all or nothing kind of gal so I decided to summon up all my willpower and desire for change and see if I could give it up for good.

I didn’t tell anyone of my plan initially because that would have involved admitting I was currently drinking a shocking amount. I went cold-turkey and it was hard. But after a couple of weeks of sobriety I put the word about and was amazed at the support I received. I gradually replaced drink and self-harm with counselling sessions, talking to friends and writing. It wasn’t easy. There were a few slip-ups and I had to learn to deal with the full force of my un-medicated feelings. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to go back to drink but I didn’t want to live a life terrified and unable to deal with how I really felt.

Seventeen years later I am still teetotal and having a drink doesn’t even occur to me any more. I’ve also not self-harmed in that time either. Lots of people ask me why I don’t drink and if I’m feeling brave, I’ll share a bit of this story with them.

Giving up alcohol has been one of the best decisions I ever made for myself. I dread to think how bad my life could have been if I hadn’t stopped. Without it I was finally in a position to look at the root causes of my unhappiness and deal with them.

If you can relate to any of this and want to stop drinking, you’re not alone. There is a lot of help and support out there and although it’s difficult to give up, I assure you it’s completely worth it.

You can contact any of the support agencies below for advice and help. Don’t wait until you hit rock bottom like I did.

Alcoholics Anonymous (UK) – 0845 769 7555
Addaction (UK) – National charity that provides services for people affected by drug and alcohol problems – http://www.addaction.org.uk
Drinkline (UK) – 0800 917 8282
Al-Anon – for families and friends of alcoholics –
http://www.al-anonuk.org.uk
MIND – Mental health charity with lots of useful resources and information – http://www.mind.org.uk
Addiction Helper (UK) – 0800 024 1476

Relationships and Depression

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Relationships and Depression

Depression doesn’t just affect you, although it can be difficult to see this when you are consumed by the beast of darkness. Its slimy tentacles will wrap themselves around every area of your life and if you aren’t careful, squeeze the living daylights out of it.

It can be hard to keep yourself together during these times, never mind the rest of your life. If you are in a relationship, your partner will often bear the brunt of the effects of your illness. It can pay to have a few strategies up your sleeve to make sure that your relationship will survive this testing time.

I was lucky with my partner that we had been together for over a year (and known each other as friends for 3 years before that) when I became seriously depressed as a result of my Dad’s death. So he already knew me pretty well and had seen a lot of the positive sides of my personality. He knew I’d had problems in the past but for the start of our relationship at least, we were able to get off on a solid footing.

I’m pointing this out because I’ve had other relationships that started when I was already depressed and they either never got off the ground or were doomed to failure because I wasn’t well enough to hold them down. Depression clouds everything and the type of boyfriends I picked whilst consumed by the quagmire were let’s say, less than exemplary. If they were suffering from depression as well, then the hideous starting dynamic meant that we both ended up with twice as many problems as we’d begun with.

It’s given me a lot of valuable insights into how relationships work. They are difficult at the best of times, but throw mental illness into the equation and it can all get pretty messy quite quickly.

My current partner does not have personal experience of depression, so when I succumbed to the monster, he didn’t know how to handle it. Overnight I had changed from someone who was independent, motivated and capable to a needy, clingy mess.

We both had to learn how to handle me in this state and how to get our relationship through one of the worst times of my life.

If you are the one who is depressed, it is important to challenge all those negative voices in your head saying your partner is going to leave you. Despite having no evidence whatsoever to back this up, I held onto this belief with a vice-like grip. Depression is evil; it can help to see it as a separate entity and give it a hard time when it shows up. From past experiences I’ve learned that nothing will get rid of a boyfriend faster that constantly asking them to promise they will never leave. So I fought against these thoughts. You have to give your partner credit for being able to see beyond depression and believe them if they say they love you. If you think that you are going to drive them away with your depression, you probably will.

Communication is also vital, even though the impulse of depression is to withdraw. Talk to your partner about how you are feeling, even if every fibre of your being believes they won’t want to hear it. If you can’t explain what you are feeling, tell them that. Be honest if you feel dreadful. Share and involve them in your experience. My partner was honest with me and told me he didn’t know what to do or say when I felt bad. I told him he didn’t have to do or say anything, that listening was enough. Over time, we worked out ways to bridge the gap. I learned how to explain what I needed and he felt less pressure to be measurably helpful.

It’s also important not to have unrealistic expectations of your partner and expect them to save or rescue you from depression. If you are lucky to be with someone kind and helpful, resist the temptation to make them totally responsible for your well-being. I’ve found that when one person is depressed, it alters the dynamic of the relationship dramatically into that of carer and patient. I’ve been both the depressed one and the carer through various relationships and it’s very hard to get back on an equal footing. It’s great if your partner wants to help, but you have to take responsibility for yourself too. Get professional help, look into medication, support groups and self-help and above all, try and keep your life as intact as possible. See friends, talk to them about how you feel and develop coping strategies for getting yourself through it. The more you withdraw from life and your commitments, the more of a burden your partner has to shoulder.

It can be helpful to apply these strategies to all relationships, not just the one you have with your partner. I’ve always found it helpful to spread myself around amongst my partner, friends and family to make sure that no-one feels over-burdened by me. Although you don’t want to be hard on yourself, it is realistic to accept that depression is a pain in the backside and it is difficult to support someone through it. Again, communication is important. If it’s hard to get out and meet people, explain that. Keep in contact by text, email or phone instead. If people don’t know how to help, reassure them that just being there is enough because it often is.

Finally, the most important thing to consider when keeping your relationships intact is to remember that life still goes on for other people when you are depressed. You have to ask how they are, show an interest and act like you care, even if you don’t. Of course you need support, understanding and flexibility, but relationships beyond your family are not unconditional and they won’t survive if you disappear into your own doom. It can often provide a welcome break from your own head to listen and consider someone else’s life for a while.

The chances are that depression will pass eventually and you don’t want to emerge from it to find your life full of deafening silence and tumbleweed. I’ve found that these damage limitation strategies can go a long way in helping to rebuild your life afterwards.

Navigating the minefield of professional help.

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Navigating the minefield of professional help.

When I first sought help for my mental health issues at 16, I was shocked to find that the psychiatrist I saw was a horrible and nasty cow. I expected that she would be nice to me as I was suffering and all; sadly this wasn’t the case. As I was only 16 and lacking in any self-esteem or assertiveness skills, I let it go and filed the experience under ‘more shit that’s happened to me.’

I never went back and it took me another 3 years to pluck up the courage to ask my GP for help again. This time I was referred to a male psychotherapist. He was altogether more agreeable but unfortunately I was only assigned a couple of months worth of appointments before I was released back into the wild. All he ever really said was ‘how does that make you feel?’ but I appreciated being able to chat and discuss how things made me feel.

I wasn’t sure what to do after this as I was still prone to awful depression and thought I had exhausted all my options via the GP. Luckily, when I got to University I discovered that the campus offered a free counselling service. I was amazed when the woman I saw was friendly, helpful AND insightful. Not only did she patiently listen to all my shit, but she drew diagrams on a white board about feelings, processes and behavioural patterns. For the first time ever, someone was able to present the contents of my head back to me in a way that made sense. She was big on ‘inner child’ therapy and had me drawing pictures and writing letters to myself with my non-dominant hand. It was fun!

I used to love going to see her and learnt a lot about myself during her sessions. Then she told me she loved seeing me too but we had to finish the sessions because of ‘transference’. Her transference had manifested itself in her having motherly feelings towards me which she had raised in her supervision. I told her I didn’t want to stop coming because it was really helping me and she burst into tears.

It was a less than exemplary situation but at least she had the self-awareness to flag up the issue and be honest about her own reactions. It’s just difficult to know what to do when your counsellor is sat in front of you crying her eyes out. From this experience I learnt that counselling was definitely something I wanted to pursue with somebody else, although I’d have to watch out for unwittingly acting in a daughterly fashion.

After graduating University, I sought help from a young persons counselling agency and spent nearly 2 years seeing a guy who was only a couple of years older than me who was on a work placement as part of his Diploma. Again it was very helpful and I felt that I was gaining a lot of insight into my problems. He was very focused on coping mechanisms and I was delighted one day when he announced that my coping skills ‘surpassed those of anyone else he knew.’ The problem here was that I’d started to see him as a friend. I think he saw me in the same way and would tell me a lot of information about himself, his life and his own feelings. He allowed me to get close to him and I didn’t realise at the time that this was entirely inappropriate. Things got worse when he told me he had been on a hypnotherapy course. He asked if he could demonstrate what he’d learned and I trusted him, so I said yes. The practical upshot of which was that it wasn’t hypnotherapy at all but some sort of weird, esoteric trance-inducing practice which brought on a massive anxiety attack. I would have let it go as it was one bad experience in 2 years of seeing him, but unfortunately his other clients complained and he was dismissed.

I was starting to see that receiving successful and appropriate professional help was a bit of a minefield.

From here onwards I gave the therapy a miss and relied on my highly acclaimed coping skills. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, all was well until my Dad popped his clogs prematurely and I had to take my place again on the mental health referral merry-go-round.

I then spent a few months with an NHS counsellor who at best could be described as useless, pointless, ineffectual and boring. I swapped her for another one I found myself through a women’s centre. She was a lot better but also ended up in floods of tears one day after ‘connecting deeply’ with what I was saying.

It was all getting just a little bit tiresome. At this time, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) was now being hailed as the new therapy du jour so I asked to be put on a waiting list for this instead.

I waited and waited and waited before getting 6 sessions with a man who was very nice but didn’t do much. He told me it would be a mistake to work on in-depth techniques as my problems were so ‘deep rooted’ that I needed Cognitive Analytical Therapy instead. I’d never heard of this but allowed him to refer me to the waiting list. Apparently it is long-term analysis that takes 12-months and you get to grips with all your current issues by going back into your childhood for answers. I must admit my heart sank when he said this as I thought I’d done the childhood stuff in my University inner-child therapy. I was pretty sure my current problems were entirely connected to my Dad’s death. But when you are feeling vulnerable and have waited an eternity to see someone, it’s difficult to know what’s best. He told me I’d only have to wait 6-8 weeks for the CAT so I hung on.

6 MONTHS later ( why can’t they just be honest about the length of time these appointments take? ) I got my appointment for what I thought was Cognitive Analytical Therapy. The therapist was a no-nonsense woman who was very confused that I thought she practiced CAT as she was actually a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist. She told me that her organisation didn’t offer CAT and the last therapist was completely wrong to think I could get it! After a short heated interchange she told me she’d have to report him and I agreed wholeheartedly. She assessed me and agreed I didn’t need CAT anyway and that my problems were related specifically to my Dad’s death.

I saw her for a few months and cannot praise the CBT therapy highly enough. It helped massively. In many ways, it was more helpful than anything I’d experienced before as it was so practical and gave me the tools to be able to think about things differently. It appealed to my sense of logic and reason and suited my way of thinking. Of course the therapist wasn’t perfect. She could be cold and officious and wound me up by asking which items I would like to put on the ‘agenda’ each week, but at least there was no boundary crossing, crying or other inappropriate nonsense. I learnt a lot from her and feel that CBT techniques have permanently re-wired my brain.

I don’t know whether I had extremely bad luck with my earlier ventures into therapy, or if these experiences are relatively common. I often wonder how different my life would have been if the psychiatrist I saw at 16 had been better, but I suppose it doesn’t work like that. Therapists are human too and subject to the same flaws as the rest of us. My only regret is that I wasn’t confident enough at the time to speak up or complain about some of the ridiculous scenarios that came my way. Despite the difficulties though, I did manage to achieve a lot of insight and self-awareness into my problems. I’m glad I kept going and asking for different types of help as eventually, I did manage to find the right support.

Laura’s Top Tips for navigating the minefield of professional help

1) If you are unhappy with anything your therapist says or does, SPEAK UP. If you don’t feel comfortable saying it directly to them, then ask to speak to the manager of the organisation or complain in writing.

2) A therapist is not your friend/mother/anyone else in your life and if they start acting as such, it’s time to end the sessions and move on. The sessions are yours, to talk about your issues and not theirs. You will never see them again after the sessions end, so make sure they keep to their professional boundaries.

3) If your therapist cries in front of you, that is their problem not yours. If it makes you uncomfortable, say so. Remember therapists are human too and may be affected by what you say, but you always have the right to let them know how it makes you feel or walk away.

5) Therapist don’t always have all the answers. Don’t expect them to completely ‘fix’ you or transform you into a totally different person.

6) If you have given a therapy a good try and don’t feel it’s helping, don’t continue. Ask to be referred to a different person or a different therapy entirely.

7) If you are on a massive waiting list and find yourself struggling, don’t hesitate to call the Samaritans or any of the mental health helplines such as MIND which are available. You could be waiting months, so don’t let things build up and overwhelm you.

8) There are many different types of counselling, therapy and support available. Do your research and see which types seem appropriate for you.

9) Don’t be afraid to ask to see someone’s qualifications and ask about their experience. You are letting them loose on your mind, so make sure their credentials are in order.

10) Remember as they say in the L’Oreal adverts – ‘You’re worth it’ You deserve to have the right help.