I know I said this post would be my last about my experiences with mental health – but I had some thoughts I wanted to share!
Over recent months, discussion of the mental health crisis has become increasingly visible in the media. Mental ill health is the largest single-source of burden of disease in the UK, costing approximately £105 billion per year in England. (I found a fantastic information pack from Mental Health First Aid England, which I’ll link at the bottom of this post).
Recent initiatives such as Public Health England’s Every Mind Matters, and Heads Together, developed by The Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, are raising awareness of the extent of mental ill health throughout all areas of our society. Tackling the stigma of talking about mental health issues is something that is long overdue, as well as providing advice about how to cope when faced with mental health issues.
I wanted to weigh in a little on the advice part of this. I can only talk of my own experience, but talking about it is the point of many of these campaigns. I’ve found that getting out and about in recent months has really helped me stay on top of my mood. But there’s another side to that famous piece of advice ‘go for a walk’. When I was severely depressed, I couldn’t get out of bed, let alone get outside. Beth McColl also talks about this on Self.com, warning against using exercise as a panacea for anxiety and depression.
Every Mind Matters’ low mood page advises us to:
“Increase helpful activity
Low mood can stop us doing important or enjoyable activities. Try listing these things and doing some each day. Start with easier ones and, as you progress, your mood should improve.
Being active, cutting back on alcohol and making sure we have a healthy balanced diet can help boost your mood, and help our wellbeing.”
I know that when I was very depressed, I couldn’t list a single thing that was enjoyable, let alone just ‘start’ doing some each day. When it’s a mountain to even brush your teeth, listing something you used to enjoy and suddenly finding the strength to get up and do it is pretty much impossible. And that’s without inviting the inevitable comparison between the current you, and the one who used to be able to enjoy all these activities. The NHS website also advises us to exercise, starting with walking 20 minutes a day.
In the dark depths of depression, I couldn’t leave the house. I didn’t even brush my hair for weeks. Being active was the last thing on my mind. I know it took all my energy just to move to the kitchen to find something instant to eat. Even opening a tin of beans and finding the willpower to turn on the hob and cook them was too much. This is where advice like this starts to break down. Right now, having clawed my way out of the hole, I can look at advice like this and seriously consider doing it. I’m in the right headspace to utilise suggestions like this to keep on top of my mood. Last year, a list like this did me more harm than good.
I’m by no means against the advice provided. It’s useful, helpful advice backed up by research, to help maintain a healthy mood. If you’re in a mental health crisis, lists like this go out the window and urgent support is needed. I just want to highlight that a list like this is not the answer to mental ill health. Telling your depressed friend to just get outside for a walk is not helpful. They won’t miraculously be cured by a brisk stroll. I dreamed of being able to go for a walk. If someone suggested it to me, I felt useless, like I couldn’t even do that one small thing that everyone else took for granted.
Blurt Foundation asked people with depression on Twitter what advice had been given from well-meaning family/friends/colleagues/acquaintances. The replies were staggering. You can read the thread (from 2018) here, but responses included “Have you tried yoga?”, “What have you got to be depressed about”, “Get out and meet some people” and of course “You don’t need medication, just go for a walk”. It worries me that people will read an advice list and truly believe that going for a walk a few times a week will magically cure depression.
Blurt have a brilliant free download called “How to support someone who has depression” which details some of the myths that still surround depression and I entirely recommend reading it – you can find it on their free download page here.
Despite the increase in visibility of the issues surrounding mental ill health, we still have a long way to go in tackling the misunderstanding of conditions like depression. I just hope that as talking about mental ill health becomes the norm, that understanding increases alongside it.