Mental health is inseparable from physical health. One will always affect the other. And both, I hope you agree, are basic human entitlements. So imagine my surprise when I found that treatment seemed all but impossible.
I have clinical depression. It’s not extreme but it is a sickness that underlies everything I do.
When someone tells you they have depression the question is usually ‘why?’. Sometimes there is a why, a catalyst. But for the overwhelming majority of the time there is no ‘why’. Your parents don’t need to be gunned down in a back alley. Your uncle doesn’t need to be killed by a robber you let get away only minutes earlier. Ordinary depression might be better described as a temporary sadness while clinical depression is a lingering sadness caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.
I go into these persnickety details to make one key point: depression isn’t just a personal issue, it’s a health issue just like a broken bone.
My journey into (or should that be ‘around’) the UK mental health system began in 2012. I’d reached a particular low, exacerbated by the lingering ache of a breakup that I couldn’t seem to shake. Wallowing in it at home made things worse, so on one of our regular trips to a coffee shop my mum suggested I seek counselling.
She’d received counselling some years prior before retiring from her job of 30 years at Deutsche Bank. After she retired she retrained as a counsellor and these days she works at Mind.
So I gave the local youth centre a call. Of course, in the midst of deep depression, sequestered from the world, waking up each morning in tears and vomiting (oversharing?), I was seen immediately… six months later. Though it didn’t occur to me at the time, this was my first glimpse at the woefully under-resourced mental healthcare system.
The counsellor I saw seemed nice enough. We sat down, filled out some paperwork and got chatting. But it seems my problems just weren’t interesting enough for her. She fidgeted, looked at the door, and generally made it clear that she had no interest whatsoever in what I was talking about. But I gave it another shot. And another one. And another. Then my patience ran out. I went in one last time to say I wasn’t going to see her anymore and she gave me an evaluation form. I gave her a good evaluation which I regret to this day.
A few months after the failure of counselling I decided to take a different approach. I went to my GP and we went over my symptoms. She was extremely supportive, explaining that depression is a chemical imbalance, assuring me it wasn’t my fault and so on. In the end she prescribed Fluoxetine (also known as Prozac) and after about a year on these things I felt a little better. Lesser known physical symptoms like heavy limbs were still hanging around but everything seemed a little brighter so I came off the meds.
Another two years pass and I’m in a decent job, I have a girlfriend and I’m closer to my family than I’d been in years. Then, in the space of a month my nan dies, my girlfriend leaves and I’m fired. Naturally, things go downhill sharpish so I head back to my doctor who prescribes me Sertraline, which I find almost completely useless so after another visit I’m switched to Venlafaxine and that’s where things get fun.
Venlafaxine is an SSNRI which in scientific terms means it will mess you the hell up … in my experience at least. Forget to take them one morning and you’re in for constant nausea, headaches, lightheadedness and dizziness to the point of barely being able to stand. Probably best to ditch these.
And that’s where I am. From a medication standpoint at least.
I’ve tried exercise and contrary to popular belief it didn’t do much good. I walked up to 15 km a day and lifted weights 3-5 times a week. I was happy to be stronger and leaner, but the fog of depression didn’t lift for a minute.
The only respite I’ve found is in a particularly useful set of self-improvement episodes on YouTube channels called Practical Psychology, Improvement Pill and Charisma on Command. I’ve always avoided these kinds of things as they stank of hokey American pseudo-science, so initially I took these with a grain of salt. It wasn’t until Charisma on Command did a breakdown of their favourite books that they really started to make a difference.
As I work my way through all of the books on that list I find myself turning away from medication and back toward more psychotherapeutic forms of treatment. And when I can afford it I’ll give counselling another shot.
So that’s my experience with depression. Relying on medication alone might work for some folks out there but in my experience it’s been nothing more than a numbing agent for difficult times. It’s only through developing and understanding ourselves that we can hope to overcome our issues. We can’t do it alone either. Be it friends, family or mental health professionals, we need community.
Regardless, good mental health is a fundamental right. It’s essential that this country focuses on the NHS; on fighting privatization and saving our most valuable public service. But also on the specific difficulties of mental illness treatment which, given the beleaguered state of our health system, is woefully underfunded.
There are people who have it worse than me by a long shot but I hope my journey helps fuel the conversation. Maybe the fight for our NHS can bring us together in the battle for mental health.