I have a complicated relationship with my mental health.
Though I have never made a secret of this, some of you who know me may still be a little surprised at this post. However the last few days have been particularly difficult and so I thought this would be a helpful way for me to process my feelings.
Each person will experience depression and anxiety differently, but this in brief is my story.
As a primary school aged child, I remember my teachers being concerned about some of the behaviors I exhibited. I was a loud and somewhat unruly child, fond of my independence and weary of authority. Too much of these traits in young people often frighten and cause alarm and so my school suggested to my parents that they seek out a professional opinion as to the cause of my rebelliousness.
Between the ages of eight and fourteen I recall visiting a series of doctors, psychologists and other mental health professionals and hearing them frequently mention terms like “Dyslexia,” and “ADHD”. They prescribed me with medication such as Ritalin – a drug used to treat deficit hyperactivity disorder and also suggested my diet be altered and so, for a short period, I was not allowed to consume any products containing sugar or artificial colours. I still recall the pain I felt watching all the other school children eating their desserts in the school cafeteria whilst I was unable too. I graduated primary school exhausted, upset and prone to extreme mood swings; one moment being overjoyed and the next being angry and aggressive. Indeed, this continued through my time at secondary school and beyond.
It was only once I got to university that I began to take control over my own mental health. On campus there was a lot more awareness amongst students and staff about psychological and emotional well-being. In my first year I recall sitting with some fellow-students and having each person share their own struggles with mental health. I felt encouraged to talk more openly about my feelings, particularly my mood swings. In my second year a girlfriend suggested that I should visit the university’s health centre and speak with one of the doctors there about managing these feelings. I remember explaining to the doctor that whilst I felt intellectually aware that things were going well in life, my emotions did not always match this reality. I described how often, for no apparent reason, a cloud of depression would descend upon me; smothering my positive feelings with pain and anxiety. After several appointments the doctor prescribed me with the antidepressant Citalopram. We experimented with the dose and after some trial and error eventually settled on 20mg a day. Citalopram greatly reduced my mood swings and my anxiety began to subside. I was fortunate – medication is not right for everyone – and experienced only mild side effects.
Whilst the medication has been extremely helpful I do not think of it as having ‘cured’ my mental health problems. It has certainly made them more manageable but this relationship still has its rough patches. There are days when it is difficult to get out of bed, let alone motivate myself to do something productive. On some level I still fear that the low feelings I experienced as a child will one day return.
That said, I am extremely motivated and, though it might sound strange, an optimist! I know life to be highly rewarding, meaningful and enjoyable. This knowledge helps me to continually move forward and has given me wonderful friends, family and children; a great education and wonderful colleagues.
I want to conclude by sharing some of my coping strategies that others struggling with mental health might find useful.
A key to sustaining good mental health involves carefully managing changes to my environment. Sudden changes and big decisions can unsettle my mental equilibrium and so I try to keep a measured day-to-day pace. If I know I might have to make a big change – for example, starting a new job – I will try to think ahead about some of the different possible scenarios that I might be faced with and, in doing this, reduce the sense of change should any of them occur.
Family and Friends
I have found my friends and family extremely supportive, and talking to them has often been the first step in identifying longer term strategies to cope with my depression and anxiety. It is good to have a small group of people you trust to share your concerns or feelings with and who can support you whether times are good or bad.
Professional Help and Charities
Just over a decade ago I was in the United States and feeling extremely low. It was 3am in the morning and for several weeks I had been too anxious to get a proper night’s sleep. In desperation I called the 24 hour helpline of a local mental health charity and spoke to one of their volunteers. Even though my mind still ached after the call, it did help my get some perspective on how I was feeling that evening. A simple internet-search provides a range of UK based numbers that a person can call if they are having a mental health crisis.
Additionally, as an adult, I have found mental health professionals to be very important in helping me to manage my mental health. Your local GP should be able to advise you of a reputable counselling service, psychiatrist or other mental health professional.
Managing one’s mental health is not always easy; on the contrary it can often be really difficult. It is however important and only in doing so can we live well rounded lives and reach our full potential. I actually feel my own struggles have helped me to develop an awareness and understanding towards other people wrestling with their mental health, particularly the children and teenagers I encounter through my work. I hope that by sharing my own mental health experiences, other people will feel encouraged to share their own struggles and seek the help they need.