Depression and mental health are big issues needing more open discussion. Flora Carr investigates what happens when depression hits closer to home.
A few weeks ago a message from an old best friend from primary school popped up on Facebook. “Fuck it coming home. I am.” I was bewildered. I began to question her further. I knew something was wrong; her inarticulate messages read as if she were mumbling through tears, her long pauses coming between sobs. To protect my friend’s identity I’m changing and withholding various details about her, but in our following conversation she said she’d been diagnosed with clinical depression.
Depression. Just one word and my world shifted slightly. Until that moment it had been a word associated with soap operas, or drunken, pitied family friends who seemed like caricatures in themselves. Never would I have associated it with my friend from school, where she’d been a prefect whom everybody loved. And yet there it was. Before I could even respond, things went from bad to worse. She began to express her ‘humiliation’ at her diagnosis, saying she’d just never thought she’d be ‘one of those people’ who’d get depression. Aside from her doctor, she’d only told me and one other friend; at that point she couldn’t yet face telling her family, saying how her mum would ‘freak’. I became even more worried when she told me that she’d lost two-and-a-half stone since going to university. Was this normal for people with depression? I felt hopelessly under-qualified. I said that I wished I could be there to give her a hug and chocolate; I immediately regretted it. Would she think I assumed that just a hug and chocolate would make her ‘better’? Would she think I was belittling her condition? I was nervous that the slightest comment from me might make everything worse. But I was also annoyed; my loyalty towards her made it impossible for me to break my promise not to tell anyone else. And her family needed to know. They could assure her, better than I ever could, that the single word ‘depression’ wasn’t her new identity. From everything she told me it seemed that, for her, depression was an embarrassing label, not a condition. But of course, before I’d had time to think calmly, even I had fleetingly seen it that way: a label to neatly categorise the more embarrassing and hostile characters in a television drama.
And yet my friend is far from alone. Every year, one in four will experience a mental health issue in the UK. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, in the aftermath of Christmas there is a spike in the number of people diagnosed with depression, and the number of suicide attempts. Perhaps ‘January Blues’ really is a real thing. For many of us, the idea of Christmas is placed on a pedestal. The songs that we listen to non-stop from 1 December (or, if you’re like me, mid-November) until Boxing Day constantly tell us that Christmas is the best time of the year. And for many, it is. Despite the annual disputes about whether or not we’ll be able to fit everything in the oven, it’s also a time of family, cheer, fantastic telly and, of course, embarrassing knit wear. But at the same time, the songs tell us that “next year all our troubles will be out of sight”; or, to quote Slade, “look to the future now / It’s only just begun”. They imply that washing down turkey with six glasses of mulled wine will also wash away all our problems. And of course that’s not the case. In the rush of hitting the sales (and tutting at how your present to your Mum is now 60 per cent cheaper), New Years Eve suddenly creeps up on you. Sausages-on-sticks are eaten, parties are attended, your dad tries to turn Jools Holland on, and you awkwardly kiss a stranger. And that’s that. As the clock strikes twelve the nation breathes out.
It’s the annual anti-climax. After New Year’s Eve there is little to hope for except a few more days of back-to-back films and left-over turkey sandwiches. After a solid month of looking eagerly forwards, January is a month of last year’s bills and back-to-work, back-to-school. For students, it’s even worse. As you slide into bed at the end of Boxing Day, surrounded by chocolate wrappers, you’re fully aware that the pile of revision you’ve neglected over the past few weeks can no longer be avoided. For many universities, including Exeter, exams start less than a week into January; barely giving you time to recover from the New Year hangover. Is it any wonder that this sudden shift from festive cheer to cold exam halls results in young adults such as my friend becoming not only rundown, but actually depressed?
In the hope that when I next spoke to my friend I would be able to give more constructive advice than ‘hugs and chocolate’, I decided to research clinical depression. However, trawling through pages of chatrooms and self-help guides on the internet, it’s surprising the number of people out there who view depression as something which only the weak are afflicted with. It struck a chord with me; my friend, in expressing her ‘humiliation’ at being diagnosed, seemed to suggest that somehow she had been rendered weaker, unworthy. Many view depression as something you can ‘shake off’ or ‘snap out of’. As highlighted by the recent trending video ‘The Mask You Live In’ by The Representation Project, guys are told to ‘man-up’, the implication being that having depression in some way emasculates them. For others, apparently all it takes is for your tell-it-like-it-is friend to advise you to ‘lighten up’ before taking you on a night out. Getting with someone in a club, getting drunk. Even hugs and chocolate… that’s all it takes, right? As it turns out, no. Despite the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of General Practitioners conducting a joint five-year ‘Defeat Depression’ campaign to reduce prejudice and educate in the UK during the 90s, studies have shown that social stigma surrounding depression still exists; many have little idea about its causes or symptoms. Depression can be caused by a range of factors, from biological or social factors to drug and alcohol abuse. You can even get depression from seasonal shifts in the weather, which is called ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’ (SAD). Let alone January Blues, you can potentially become clinically depressed every winter. The symptoms of depression also vary: insomnia, hallucinations, appetite loss and insecurity all feature.
With such a range of causes and symptoms, ranging from the mild to the extreme, it is little wonder that so many people are diagnosed with it every year. You’d be shocked at the number of celebrities with clinical depression: Halle Berry, Alec Baldwin, Woody Allen, Jon Bon Jovi, Alistair Campbell, Kirsten Dunst, Harrison Ford, Anne Hathaway, Alicia Keys, Eminem, David Walliams, J.K Rowling, Robin Williams and many others. Stephen Fry’s struggles with depression and bipolar disorder have brought some publicity to the condition, particularly in his 2006 documentary Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, which won Fry an Emmy in 2007. As mental health issues are gradually, tentatively explored, with documentaries such as Fry’s shedding some light on the real facts, public conceptions will, hopefully, begin to shift. The fact that so many successful celebrities have battled with and won against depression surely suggests that the condition is not in any way, contrary to my friend’s opinion, a defining label or an inhibitor. And there is help out there. For immediate relief there are many help lines, such as the Samaritans. But treatment for depression can be a slow process; this term my friend will not only be on anti-depressants but she will begin seeing a counsellor, who will hopefully help her far more than I or any number of bumbling well-wishers could. But in trying to understand what she’s going though, I hope I can still help in my own small way. Besides – I’ll still be there with the big hugs and chocolate anyway.
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