On Mental Disorders, and Being Depressed

What does Stephen Fry have to be depressed about?

Have you read Alastair Campbell’s article on The Independent? The one from 7th June 2013? Most likely not. If so, I strongly recommend you go read it [opens in new tab]. Now.

I’m going to make references to Campbell’s article throughout. So you really should read the article first. Here [opens in new tab] is the link again.

Welcome back. Before I begin, I would like to say a few words:

First of all,

a personal thank you to Dana – who made depression bearable, and even fun at times.

Secondly,

this post is dedicated to all those who have suffered from what we call mental disorder, are suffering from it, or may suffer from it in future.

More importantly, it is dedicated to the Dana’s of the world, who may not understand but are doing their best to help. May their efforts not be in vain.

OK. Now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s begin.

I promise not to go into a rage against those oblivious to the throes of a mental disorder – and by disorder I am speaking mainly about depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorders. It’s not through any fault of theirs. I will, though, go into a rage against those who dismiss mental disorders and – worse – blame them on the sufferers. The overwhelming attitude of the public toward the depressed, the anxious, and the bipolar – I have found – tends toward attributing blame or responsibility to the sufferers. So magnificently exemplified in the above question: “what does Stephen Fry have to be depressed about?”

Stephen Fry has publicly talked about his bipolar disorder – often, and eloquently. He has even produced an excellent two-part programme on bipolarity called “The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive” – again, you can find it online. (Part One; Part Two) Many other public personalities have talked about their issues, but to apparently little avail. Mental disorder remains somewhat of a taboo subject, and understandably so – it’s dreadfully hard to understand. Impossible, I’d say, for those who’ve never experienced its more severe forms.

There are a lot of excellent books you can read to get a better understanding of mental disorders – inbox me if you’d like me to suggest one. I came to the topic via unconventional routes (people seem to love saying that): my economics background and my depression. I study Economics – I have always found the dismal science fascinating. And it didn’t take me long to fall in love with the ‘cool’ branch of econ – behavioural economics and neuroeconomics. I’m not going to bore you with those two just now (don’t worry though, I’ll surely talk about these babies at a future date). But for now, suffice to know that my readings on decision-making and the mechanics of the brain are what stemmed my interest in the psychological mechanisms of mental disorders – specifically, how one descends into the depths of depression. The second route: my depression. Let me borrow another sentence from Campbell: “Having depression is part of who I am, and it always will be”.

One of said excellent books on depression. I'd better return this book soon.

One of said excellent books on depression. Actually, I’d better return this book soon.

I can’t speak for those with anxiety and bipolar disorders, but I can speak for those who’ve experienced depression at one point or other in their life. It is a devastating, debilitating thing. I’ve never had it that bad. To borrow Campbell’s grading system, I was probably an 8.8 at my worst (“Eight and a half is can’t-get-out-of-bed bad. Nine is can’t open my eyes, dress, shave, brush my teeth.”). So in a way, I guess I was lucky. I wouldn’t want to know what 9 feels like – 8.8 was bad enough. A lot of people asked me “what do you have to be depressed about?”. I don’t blame them. They’re probably curious – I mean, I would be. And they couldn’t possibly understand what someone like me (straight A’s, successful, well-liked, you get the idea) would have to be depressed about. Well, the answer is very simple: nothing, I just am – well, was, to be exact.

Depression is a wave that washes over you. Some see it as a skill, one that you exercise when you’ve had quite enough of life and want to go into hibernation. Others see it as a fog that creeps up on you unawares. Campbell uses the term “depressive cloud” that “enter[s] your head, your chest, your guts, your legs, your toes, your bones, your teeth and every fibre of mind and body”. Yet others a bubble that envelops you, cuts you off completely from the outside world. When you’re depressed, nothing matters – not you, not anything else. Your loved one(s) can perish in a car crash and you wouldn’t feel a thing. It’s a state of absolute numbness. I know, I’ve been there.

And for such a debilitating illness, the level of support available from the medical/psychological/psychiatric establishment in Thailand is appalling. I remember visiting several medical providers in Bangkok, some supposedly specialised in treating mental patients, and the reaction I got was uniformly condescending, uninterested, and borderline insulting. Almost every doctor I saw said: take the pills – they’ll help. At least my GP in London gave me a detailed leaflet outlining the possible side effects of the anti-depressant she was proposing, and insisted that I read the information carefully before deciding whether to go down the medication route.

In the end, I “toughed it out”. I still have a bag of anti-depressants in a drawer in my bedroom. I don’t remember which anti-depressant it was. From time to time I take the sachet out to look at it, to remind myself of what I’m capable, and of how close I was to giving up. I do not mean to sound clichéd (does anyone ever?), but it’s true what they say: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. After 3 depressions, the last of which took me to an 8.8, I’m most certainly stronger. But I’m also extremely concerned as to how others are faring. Others who are still in the throes of depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, and do not have the fortune to be living in London – where professional help is readily available at zero cost – when they strike.

Things need to change, and fast. Campbell hits the nail right on the head when he writes: “we are a long way from the goal of parity of understanding and treatment of physical and mental health. You would never say: ‘What does he have to be cancerous about, diabetic about, asthmatic about?’.” It’s time to change. For a start, I suggest you read Campbell’s article (if you haven’t already), and check out the campaign.

That’s all from me for today. I’ll talk about less depressing topics next time, I promise.

In the meantime, a very Happy New Year to you all!

The sun sets on 2013, getting ready to rise for 2014!

The sun sets on 2013. May it shine bright in 2014 for each and every one of you. With love, Val.

One thought on “On Mental Disorders, and Being Depressed

  1. Pingback: Dreyfuss on his Bipolar Disorder | NAMI South Bay

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