The first time I felt like something wasn’t right was a few months after my daughter was born. She’s ten now. We’d been wanting a baby for some time, so were absolutely over the moon when she came along. But over the first few months of her life, I found myself really struggling to adapt to the new lifestyle; not because I resented the change, but because being a dad was something I was desperate to be good at and it wasn’t coming naturally. Additionally, I managed to dislocate my shoulder in that time period so I felt I was more of an active hindrance to my wife than any help. However, even then I don’t think I’d have done anything about it if my wife hadn’t brought it to my attention – that I wasn’t my usual self and I should go and talk to a GP.
To be honest, if my wife hadn’t provided that initial impetus I’m not sure how long it would have taken for me to seek help. It certainly never occurred to me that I was depressed or suffering from any sort of mental health issue – I just thought I was “down in the dumps.” Once it was flagged I went to the GP very quickly, and was immediately diagnosed with moderate to severe clinical depression.
Since then, I’ve overcome the issue around being a dad. That’s the absolute highlight of my life now and my daughter is a constant ray of much-needed sunshine for me, but it does feel like that particular “crisis”, for want of a better word, opened a door that I’ve been unable to shut properly since. There have been plenty of ups and downs in that time period. Touch wood that I’m in an “up” phase at the moment.
I’ve been living with depression for almost ten years now, so there’s very little I haven’t tried. Medication has definitely been a help, although it can take a little while to kick in. One type of medication brought with it some fairly serious side-effect, another was definitely in the “it’ll get worse before it gets better” category. However, in both cases I stuck with them and it was worth the perseverance because I did get back on an even keel.
I’ve tried counselling a few times. To be honest, the actual content of the counselling has been mixed, but what has helped me is just the feeling that I’m taking back control of the situation. Being the sort of chap who likes planning, having some sort of structured journey with steps and milestones definitely helped my mindset. And the best counselling has been absolutely excellent – definitely worthwhile.
I’ve also used meditation when I’ve been at a really low ebb – using the mindfulness principle, and it’s great to give yourself some time to really power down and get your thoughts in order. I don’t practice it any more but would definitely recommend it.
I’ve found that exercise really helps. It took me a while to find some form of exercise that I both enjoyed and was able to fit into my daily routine fairly easily. In the last eighteen months, I’ve taken up running using a Couch To 5K app. In that time period I’ve had lengthy periods injured as my muscles respond to the shock of actually being used for physical activity after years of idleness. And in that period of time I’ve definitely noticed a difference in my mental health I’m not aiming to run marathons or anything – just thirty mins of reasonably taxing physical exercise two to three times a week. The fitness and weight-loss is a bonus.
I would have to be honest and say medication has been the most effective – once it kicks in I definitely feel the benefits. But to be honest, anything that represents taking some form of control has had some sort of benefit on me, whether it be talking to a loved one, seeing a GP, or going for CBT sessions. What I’ve found the hard way is that my mental health doesn’t improve by magic. It’s like any other health problem; you have to make some form of proactive intervention to get things moving in the right direction again.
Over the years I’ve found myself being increasingly open about my mental health – most of my closest friends know about the issues I’ve had, and I’ve been able to talk about it fairly freely with my current boss. Generally the reactions are sympathetic and supportive. Even people who don’t claim to understand mental health problems will do their best to empathise. Even if sometimes it feels clumsy – the intention is still there.
No one has ever reacted negatively to my face – which I realise might put me in a minority, but I’d like to think that people generally are well-intentioned towards the people they care about. I’ve had issues at a couple of workplaces where a conflict arises between a desire to be sympathetic and supportive and “having a business to run”, and I’m not convinced that level of conflict would have arisen if the health issue had been physical, or more tangible. But even in those instances I couldn’t doubt the general good intentions and supportive inclinations of the people in question.
I think the idea that there is more of a stigma regarding mental health among men is almost beyond doubt. There’s a lot of instances of men with public profiles standing up and admitting their problems – the first one that comes to my mind is the former England cricketer Marcus Trescothick, whose autobiography was brave, committed and inspirational – and that does help a huge amount.
But, there is a stigma which does stop men seeking help. There’s still an underlying feeling that men should show a stiff upper lip and sort their problems out themselves. I remember when Stan Collymore revealed he was suffering from depression, a few years before my own first-hand experience, and my natural default reaction was “What’s a guy like him got to be depressed about? Just man up.” I realise now that that reaction was borne out of a lack of understanding, and so I wouldn’t judge people for having that same reaction. What is shameful and infuriating is people in the public eye who spout those sort of opinions – anyone with that kind of public platform surely has a duty to have an informed opinion as that kind of display of ignorance could have significant impact on people.
For me, one of the drivers of this stigma is the phrase ‘mental health’ itself – as if we should distinguish it from all the other drivers of our everyday wellbeing. It would be great if we stopped talking about it as something different – it’s all just ‘health’ at the end of the day. Conversely, people in the public eye bravely sharing their experiences does a lot to break those stigmas down – the Royal Family being a perfect recent example of this.
There can always be more done to encourage men to open up about their mental health– more encouragement, more openness, more opportunities, more platforms. When suicide is still the number one cause of death for men under forty, there has to be more that can be done, and it’s heartening to hear mental health funding as one of the key issues the upcoming General Election will be fought on. It would also be good to investigate the sort of frivolous reporting of people experiencing mental health issues that blights so much of the popular British press and demonstrate how far out of step they are with public opinion. For example, look at the way the tabloids presented Aaron Lennon’s recent struggles, and contrast that with the outpouring of sympathy I’ve seen on social media from “ordinary folk”.
Having a mental health issue is no different from pulling a muscle or having the flu. It’s not something you asked for or deserved, but you need to take steps towards getting better. Taking back control of your life feels so good, and although there can be frustrations in getting the kind of support you need, just remember that showing that kind of tenacity is worth it. You’re more loved and valued than you realise, and I’m profoundly grateful every day I wake up for the kind of love, support and understanding my wife, my daughter, my family and my friends have shown me.
If you, or anyone you know, are struggling with your mental health, there are people that can help. You can freephone the Samaritans, any time, on 116 123.
The Samaritans website
Nottingham Insight Healthcare website