I was 31 when I was first diagnosed with mental illness. I never ever expected it to happen to me (does anybody?) and it certainly wasn’t a label that I wanted.

I had known that something was seriously wrong. Happiness, even for a moment, was becoming harder and harder to come by until it vanished altogether. I didn’t know where it had gone nor where, or if, I could ever find it again. And as more and more days became trials to be endured, as night after night became a waking nightmare of imagined fears, I realised that it wasn’t going away anytime soon and I wasn’t going to overcome it alone.

And yet…and yet…. it was difficult to take the steps that I needed to take to get help. After being diagnosed with depression I continued to work despite being advised by a number of people around me that I needed to take some time off. My confidence was shot to pieces and my ability to do my job was waning. Yet I felt that I had to battle through it, that taking time off would be admitting defeat.

And I was afraid of being labelled.

Matthew Williams, mentally ill.

I was of course aware of mental illness, but in my 30 years I had never knowingly encountered it. I wasn’t a judgmental person and didn’t carry negative perceptions of people that suffered mental ill-health but I was very aware of the social stigma that existed. And I was afraid. Not only of the label but of what it would mean to my future, presuming that I was to have one. How would it affect my career? Who would employ me now that I was labelled as mentally ill? Who would trust me in a pressurized role?

It’s natural to be concerned about what others think of us but this shouldn’t have to come at the cost of not doing what we need to do to take care of ourselves. It strikes me that I wouldn’t have had these concerns had I been suffering with physical ill-health – all that would matter would be getting better and I wouldn’t doubt that my friends and family would do all that they could to help me to get back to full health.

I’m not looking to compare the nature and severity of physical and mental illness here, nor suggest that one is more serious than the other, but it cannot be doubted that relative social perceptions of physical and mental health differ greatly, as do the resources allocated to tackle each of them.

The associated stigma that exists around mental health was very much in my mind when struggling to persist at work in direct opposition to my declining mental health. My confidence was shot to pieces and routine tasks became terror-filled ordeals, each charged with the potential to cruelly confirm me as a failure, as a fraud to be exposed. I continued to struggle, day after day after day, until I experienced a very painful, very public breakdown at work. Not my finest hour.

The most difficult thing about my depression was how it changed me so completely, so totally, into someone, no, something, that was utterly alien to the me that I’d always presumed to be. One memory from this time remains vivid in my memory: a member of the local crisis team visited me at home and as he talked he asked me to tell him who I was. I couldn’t answer.

Who was I? Or rather, what was this thing, this shell that inhabited the space where Matthew used to be? Unable to answer, I turned to a photograph of Matthew holding his newborn son, smiling. ‘That’s him.’

This loss of self of the sufferer makes life very difficult for their loved ones too, as they too are unable to recognise this stranger in their midst. No matter how loving, supportive and understanding, little that they say or do seems to provide any comfort or consolation to the sufferer, entombed as he or she is within the confines of their own private hell. Little can penetrate the abyss and the futility of effort can sap the spirit of the most devoted loved ones.

And as important as it is for the sufferer to never lose hope that this too shall pass, so too is it important that loved ones maintain faith that the storm will subside. For when that day comes and the former sufferer has regained their capacity to feel, to love, and to participate once more in the routines of daily life, a special place will be reserved in the heart for those that were there no matter what.

The toll that depression can take on relationships with loved ones should not be underestimated and from understanding this we can perhaps glimpse an insight into the perverted mindset that can convince the sufferer that their loved ones would be better off without them. Far from a selfish act, from the sufferer’s twisted perspective suicide can appear to be a longed for release and not only for themselves.

In fighting the stigma that surrounds depression a greater empathy for sufferers and a greater understanding of their particular torment can save and ultimately help to rebuild broken lives. When facing an opponent that is so determined to break the spirit, an individual’s suffering is compounded by stigma that is fueled by widely held misconceptions: questioning of the sufferer’s character; assigning blame regarding how and why the affliction should strike; condemning the sufferer for a perceived willingness to allow the illness to take hold, and indeed, the commonly held misconception of whether depression is a real illness at all.

Once depression tightens its grip the illusion of control over one’s mind is exposed for the fallacy that it is. Depression is an equal opportunities affliction and it would be as well for us all to recognise this if we are to arrest its increasing incidence. According to clinical-depression.co.uk, major depression is,

“a huge problem and it is growing. Major depression is the number 1 psychological disorder in the western world. It is growing in all age groups, in virtually every community, and the growth is seen most in the young, especially teens. At the rate of increase, it will be the 2nd most disabling condition in the world by 2020, behind heart disease.”

If we are to arrest the rise of depression it would do us well to recognise that just as none of us are immune to a heart-attack, nor are any of us beyond the reach of depression. Just as the heart is an organ, so too is the brain; just as the heart can succumb to disease if we do not keep it healthy, so too can depression strike should we be complacent of the need to cultivate a healthy mind.

For far from being in control of our minds, perhaps it is instructive for us to consider psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and rider:

“Our emotional side is the elephant and our rational side is the rider. Perched atop the elephant, the rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the rider’s control is precarious because the rider is so small relative to the elephant. Anytime the six-ton elephant and the rider disagree about which direction to go, the rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched.”

This is why I speak out. This is why I refuse to be silenced by stigma. I know what happens when the elephant takes charge; I’ve seen and felt the devastation that can be left in its wake. But I’ve managed to re-take the reins and brought the elephant back into harmony with its rider. And by sharing our stories, by fighting against stigma, we can help others to do the same.

MW1I’m a recently divorced single Dad to my two wonderful children. I began to blog to help me to deal with some difficult transitions in my life, to provide a creative outlet for my thoughts and feelings, to better understand myself, and to offer help and support to others dealing with similar trials. I focus on challenges relating to divorce, dating and depression. Believe it or not I can be pretty good fun too!

Matthew can be found on his blog, Facebook, and Twitter

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