(Monochrome photos by me)
1 in 4 people will suffer from a mental health issue this year. What does this actually mean? Although words such as ‘depression’, ‘OCD’, ‘anxiety’, ‘panic attacks’ and ‘bipolar’ are widely known, the conditions themselves are often misunderstood – treated with a fear and shame not generally attached to discussions of physical illnesses. Perhaps this is because we view the mind as something ‘controllable’, while being educated to expect that our bodies will go wrong. Responses such as “pull yourself together” or, “stop being so selfish” are considered appropriate reactions by some to depression, where it would be entirely insensitive if said to someone with cancer or pneumonia. Furthermore, mental health terms are often misappropriated. Observations such as, “this weather makes me so depressed” or, “he went totally schiz”, (ie schizophrenic) still pepper conversation - lessening the impact and understanding of what these medical conditions actually mean.
The shroud of judgment and lack of knowledge is one of the main reasons for ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’ (21st - 25th May), an initiative started by the Mental Health Foundation in 2001, with the aim of raising awareness and removing stigma.
There is no single age group or portion of society that can claim to be the most heavily affected. Businesspeople fear being judged as ‘weak’ if they have panic attacks, and teenagers face a lack of understanding if they admit to peers that they are clinically depressed. But the latter group faces the additional challenge of navigating their way through a mystifying and scary experience with little information provided on how to recognize symptoms requiring specialist help. There are doctor-referred NHS counselling services, and some colleges do have well-being centres or nurses one can approach – but to access any services, the individual not only has to admit that there’s a problem, but also needs to know where to look. Student Jemima*, who recovered last year from a prolonged episode of depression and self harm, observed that, “It’s very sad that so many people fear depression and mental illness…. Many suffer alone because they refuse to admit they might not be mentally healthy. People need to learn to understand that mental illnesses are natural. I think that in the UK especially we view depression as a weakness, or something that is the fault of the individual.”
By its very nature, adolescence is characterised by intense change, emotional turmoil and an increasing awareness of future responsibilities. It therefore becomes harder to distinguish between what is merely a feeling of justifiable anxiety, and what is a clinical illness requiring outside help. Although definitions of depression can be found with a quick Google search, it is an umbrella term that encompasses a wide variety of symptoms. Besides, common descriptions of ‘sadness’ and ‘discouragement’ are simplistic. For many, depression cannot be articulated so easily, and is instead identified through emptiness, worthlessness/ guilt, or even a complete lack of feeling. Seventeen year old Daisy* recounted “constantly feeling tired and hopeless - I would describe it as having a tap on my foot and somebody turning it to let all of my energy out.” It can distort motive to the point where normal activities such as getting out of bed are impossible. It originates in the limbic brain, but the effects may be felt in the whole body – it’s a physical illness just as much as, say, diabetes.
The differences between teenage angst and genuine illness also blur and smudge the impact of depression. On the Internet in particular, it has become not only a misappropriated term, but has been almost idealised in some forums. For example, the glamorisation of suicide in photography makes me distinctly uncomfortable – the re-blogs of bathtubs and blood, or self-harm scars, or Anna Karenina-esque suggestions of jumping under trains. As much as one can understand the compulsion to share or explore emotions and experiences (and we do need to talk about these conditions), self-inflicted death is not a warmly-tinted, film-grained, floaty-dressed event like Sofia Coppola’s film ‘The Virgin Suicides’ - as beautiful as the cinematography is. Romanticising such a traumatic, destructive action is not positive. Relatives on both sides of my family have committed suicide. Climbing a tree to throw oneself onto electric cables is not glamorous. Plunging from a bridge is not glamorous. It's a life sentence for those left behind. It's a last resort, often described not so much a wish for death, but as a desire to stop living. For those of us who have never experienced the completely altered state of mind that drives a suicidal impulse, it is impossible to fully understand the depths of despair and hopelessness that drives it. Therefore, in my opinion, to glamorise it is misguided.
Depression can be genetic, but is often provoked by either a longstanding problem or a major life event. Daisy talked about habitually bottling up her feelings, combined with caring for her mum (who had experienced a period of depression in the past), while Jemima traced the start of her depression back to a difficult relationship with her mother, who divorced her father when Jemima was a baby. Both girls’ experiences of depression are very different, and yet they similarly feel that as a condition it is not tackled enough. School PHSE lessons teach teenagers how to identify and prevent STI’s (on the basis that 1 in 4 sexually active teens will contract an infection), but the fact that 1 in 5 adolescents experience mental health problems is virtually ignored. As yet, there is no programme that has been rolled out nationally to all UK educational institutions. Thus, one way of raising awareness is to talk. Conversation is a vital tool in challenging misinformed attitudes. Jemima said: “I can definitely discuss [my depression] with my friends now. I think there is a stigma surrounding depression, but I usually ignore it. I sometimes find it difficult to stop once I've opened up!” Her candour is refreshing. It should not be made obligatory to discuss the inner workings of our health – mental or otherwise – but genuine honesty is an important first step in reducing the ‘taboo’ nature of mental ill health.
*Names have been changed
This post was provoked by watching a loved family member go through six crippling months of very severe depression. All I can say is that I'm thankful that for some, the complete debilitation can be slowly addressed through a combination of medication and therapy. But, if I’ve learnt anything, it’s that depression and its treatment is different for everyone.