As I've said, an important trait to getting through is knowing when you've been through a similar phase, and that you can “get through it again”. It’s a maturity which comes with experience and perspective of your condition. I myself have always found A Beautiful Mind inspirational for the part where Russell Crow as John Nash notices something about his mental condition (his hallucinations don't age), and uses it to realise and battle his difficulties.
This week I was at a Whirlwind Men event and talking to other members of our Kapiti group who are at different stages on their road to mental wellness. For myself, like John Nash I’d learned over the years to apply a scientific method to my mental state – trying to log down moods and feelings, and question why I felt them, cross checking it with what I'd done that day.
“Mentally checking in” or discussing how you feel about your current state of mind – is where events like Whirlwind Men can be useful, and I've used the Wellington Balance Group for people with bipolar, depression or anxiety to do much the same when I've felt myself under stress.
A system recommended by a lot of people at the groups I've been a part of is the WRAP Wellness Recovery Action Plan. This is similar to the approach I take – recording how you feel, and also saying “on days when I feel down, I need to make sure I'm getting out and exercising and eating healthily, not junk comfort food” or “on weeks when I feel stressed, I need to be able to clear at least one whole day just for myself, with no to-do lists”.
In the end, a lot of coping comes down to marshalling your resources,
Close support from friends and family is just such an incredibly important lifeline, I can’t understate it. You don’t have to have the support from your entire family – some people who “get it” better than others, and can be mature about it. But having just one person you can talk to and say “I’m just feeling a bit down today because of …” helps. And it’s okay to say you’re down – it doesn't mean you need meds or to be carted to a care institute for feeling down, only if the frequency and intensity are too severe.
And let’s be frank – people can be upset or sad without having mental issues. If you miss out on a promotion, your car has been vandalised, or you’re going through a break up – you’re going to “feel down”. To an extent that’s natural. But for some people, this can be triggers to much bigger issues, and they don’t bounce back from them. Richard who ended up off for 3 months after attending a funeral is an example of this.
One thing I would suggest though is that if you do open to friends and family about your feelings when you’re depressed, it’s important that you also show them the “other side of the coin”. Like the news we can overtalk about the “bad stuff” in our life, and forget to say when we've come out of the woods a bit.
It’s also so essential to keep the relationship intact. I've a friend in Wellington who has been going through an intense and emotional breakup, and we've been talking and meeting up a lot. But then about 3 weeks ago, they seemed to “vanish”, not appearing at events and not answering texts. I was concerned they were in the pits of depression, and wondering to just turn up uninvited – then found out that simply they’d met another person, starting dating and “life was good again”. But didn't think to mention.
Although usually a patient person, I was somewhat annoyed at this - this individual is very good at telling me when something goes wrong, but less so about the good stuff. But the lesson is key, if you are “sharing the rough” of your life with someone, make sure you’re also “sharing the smooth”.
Close support is wonderful for getting through the day-to-day, but my friend Ryan Edwards reminded me this week that every so often it “always helps to keep yourself on track by making visits to trusted experts” such as the doctor. They can talk to you about what might be up with you – for myself I found getting a diagnosis such as “post-traumatic stress” helped me because it allowed me to investigate about the condition, read up, understand it, find out ways other people used to limit it and cope.
However many people worry about being treated as labels, where in truth each mental health sufferer although having some common traits will have some areas which are unique to them. For example, I might have had post-traumatic stress, but the events that caused it were very unique to me.
It’s really important you build a relationship with your doctor, you need to trust them. Try and find one you like, and then always use them – don’t talk about these kind of things which “whatever doctor’s available”.
I know many people who feel dread going to the doctors, that they’re just going to be lectured to. Most doctors aren't like that. If you do find your doctor feels like that, it’s worth trying another, or even saying “I don’t feel comfortable talking to you about my mental health, is there someone else I can talk to?”. You are often well within your rights to.
Your doctor might suggest things like medication or counselling. My advice would be to neither say “yes” or “no” right away, but to discuss it, what they would mean, how would it help. A good doctor is making a suggestion, putting an option on the table, and you really need to explore it together. Many people call this a “partnership” between yourself and your doctor to review and try out options to help you.
This is where I believe a “diagnosis” or “label” can help. Because you can seek out like-minded support groups.
I'm a part of Whirlwind, which has regular meetings (about 4 a year) of men who are going through various challenges. It’s a forum for men to just be open about their feelings, to share stories, experience, pains. It’s a great support group, and I have to drive over an hour to attend from where I live, but it’s always worth it.
Likewise I've used the Wellington Balance group which is a monthly circle where you can “check in” with a group of peers about how your month has gone, the challenges you've had, and how it’s left you feeling. It’s a powerful thing to be able to be open with people who “just get it” because they’re in a similar boat to you, and to know you’re not alone.
Here is another example where Google can be your friend, there might be a group in your area, just try “depression support group”, and see where it takes you. By the way, I should point out it's quite normal to feel very nervous going to any one of these events - I was close to bottling out of my first Whirlwind day, and often people on their first visit tell a similar story, but also of how glad they are that they didn't give in to the nerves.
There is a lot of online support out there for people with depression or anxiety – often explaining about the condition that affects you, and suggesting thing you can do to help yourself.
- The NZ Depression Helpline is particularly good (and yes, you can access this outside of New Zealand).
- More youth orientated is the Lowdown, which I've explored and also found a really good resource I refer people to.
- I obviously cannot recommend the Whirlwind site or Martin Sloman enough.
These are just a few sites I recommend, but once again here, Google is your friend.
Wrapping upOver this series, I've taken you through a journey in the area of mental health. I’ve talked from my experience, and Martin Sloman who is a professional in this area to check I’m coming from a consistent and helpful direction. But in truth, I've just touched the tip of the iceberg.
I have to thank my friends and community for the messages of support that have come out through this series. It’s validated the drive I've had that this was a theme worth exploring, and to some extent “come out” about my own experience.
I personally believe we need to get our societies to the point where we can be more open about this stuff. Because I fundamentally believe it’s trying to keep these things secret that causes more harm than good.
Over the two decades I've been in the software industry, I've seen a shift. As I've said before, most companies that I've worked for operate either a confidential helpline or support with counselling. Software is a stressful business, as we’re all likely to be hurt at some point. Most of us entered the industry in our 20s and will exit it in our 60s – it’s asking a lot that during that 40 years nothing significant or stressful happen to us.
It’s important that when we go through periods of stress and depression due to either work or personal life, we’re aware (and this is where things like the WRAP can be useful). Peak athletes train intensely for competitions, but know the value of a rest day to recover. We’re going to have stressful patches in life, but need to make sure we fight hard for the recovery time, to make it happen.
Mental wellness is a journey of constant awareness and refinement. I wish you well on your journey …