South of the River – Mental health

Ed Miliband’s been in the news this week calling for a change in attitude to mental health. Good, this is a subject that needs to be talked about more.

It is ridiculous that mental health is such a taboo when one in four of us will suffer from mental health problems at some point in our lives. I’m one of those people. I suffer from depression. Not very badly, but I seem to have a crisis every ten years or so and it’s very debilitating for me and difficult for my family. I’m coming out of one now.

If you met me, you wouldn’t know I was depressed unless I was being grumpy. I know how to behave in public. I can crack a joke (usually self deprecating) and I’m very polite. That’s probably why I failed the Work Capability Assessment carried out by ATOS scoring zero points. I went back to job hunting and had a panic attack, walking out of my first job interview.

In my experience depression is not well understood by those who haven’t suffered from it. It’s not about feeling down or sad or blue. And it’s not something you can snap out of if you “just pull yourself together”, although you wish you could. I experience depression as a vicious circle which includes generalising small setbacks as disasters, blaming myself for things that aren’t my responsibility and feeling guilty, bad about myself, angry, frustrated and so on and so on.

Therapists call these “thinking errors”. I’m learning to recognise these and try and put them right. I’ve been helped enormously by seeing a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist (CBT). It was on the NHS and I only had to wait three months to see someone. This was much better than ten years ago when I was told the waiting list was 18 months. Luckily I could afford to see someone privately then.

CBT doesn’t get to the heart of what’s troubling you, but it does give you some powerful coping strategies. It’s not a magic bullet, any more than the “happy pills” I’m on are. You have to work at it and practice the techniques. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.

That’s enough about me, let me tell you about my friends. I know many people who have had spells on anti-depressants. At least four of my friends have had breakdowns that required a stay in a psychiatric hospital, or “sectioning”. One of them later committed suicide, but the others got their lives back together and are fine. What I’m trying to say is that it’s not that unusual to have mental health problems and it’s not (usually) the end of the world.

The trouble is when we don’t talk about it, so we don’t know of each other’s experiences and when it happens to us or a loved one, our ignorance makes us frightened. It’s actually a form of thinking error – we assume it’s much worse than it is.

And then there’s the stigma. I’ve always been open with my employers once I’ve understood what was wrong with me. The reaction is interesting. Even the most liberal managers have said things like “lets call it / ask your doctor to call it stress rather depression”, “you don’t want that on your record”, “it won’t look good when you’re applying for jobs”. Well I’m sorry, but if it’s OK to be off for six months with a broken leg or cancer, I think it should be OK to be off with depression.

Does anyone ever stop to ask why people become mentally ill? Looking around the world it seems pretty obvious to me that there are loads of possible causes and triggers: bereavement, abuse, domestic violence, war, redundancy, poverty …. No wonder there’s so many of us!

Let’s finish with a joke, from Jeremy Hardy.

“They used to be called lunatic asylums, now they’re called psychiatric hospitals – it’s madness gone politically correct!”


If you want help with your mental health you can:

  • Talk to your GP
  • Call the Psychological Therapy Service on 0113 343 1962 (this is how I got help)
  • Look at the Leeds NHS website
  • Look at these self-help sites Moodscape or Moodgym

I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. Follow me on Twitter @BeestonJeremy

2 Replies to “South of the River – Mental health”

  1. Interesting that this has had no responses! Given there are I think about 800 who are signed up to South Leeds Life then statistically there are about 200 for whom this might have rung a bell…

    As someone who has suffered with depressive illnesses periodically ,at intervals over the past 40 years, I am not sure there’s any less stigma today than there was all those years ago. I think there’s a lot of fear that it might be infectious in some way – a sort of chicken pox of the mind. Just like people can use ‘I’ve got a cold I can’t come into work today’ as an excuse I think there’s a lack of understanding that depression as Jeremy talks about it is not ‘I’m feeling a little but down I don’t think I’ll bother today’ but a major incapacitating and debilitating illness which appears in many guises.

    While I think CBT can be useful I am concerned that this government seems to think it can cure all ills, primarily because it’s cheap! Three months is still too long to wait… I have benefited from psychotherapeutic counselling, an understanding family and friends (although if you haven’t had it, it is very difficult to understand what it feels like) and being (well, trying to be) less hard on myself!

    One things in Jeremy’s article I would question is how open you can afford to be at work. On the whole I have been fortunate to have very understanding employers – I always tried to make sure they got more from me than I was paid for as a sort of compensation – but I was sacked once purely because I was mentally ill. It is not quite like a broken leg in that people do tend to suffer recurrent bouts of depression and the timescale for recovery is very difficult to predict. On job applications I have been open about my depression and I strongly suspect that has lessened my chances of being successful but prospective employers are very wary of being open about this because of being challenged legally.

    What do others think about present day stigma and how open you can be with employers or prospective employers?

    1. Steve, thanks for your comments, most of which I endorse. I don’t want to paint myself as some sort of angel – I don’t volunteer details of my illness to future employers, but I do answer their questions truthfully, including pointing out what triggered my illness and how I’m dealing with it at that time. I found CBT helpful and certainly better than nothing, but I agree it’s being offered as a cheap solution – I was rationed to just five sessions. As I said it deals with symptoms not causes, so it can only be part of the solution.

      I would be really interested to hear other readers views and/or experiences, do get in touch.

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