David Walsh: Ending taboo is vital to win battle with depression

As he describes his personal experience for the first time, David Walsh urges more honest talking about mental illness

Prominent figures have spoken out about their experiences with mental health issues, helping to tackle the stigma, but there are still many who fight a private battle with depression.
Prominent figures have spoken out about their experiences with mental health issues, helping to tackle the stigma, but there are still many who fight a private battle with depression.
Prominent figures have spoken out about their experiences with mental health issues, helping to tackle the stigma, but there are still many who fight a private battle with depression.

My fingers rested immobilised, and at times wavering, on the keys of my laptop for quite some time before words begin filling the white space that used to be here.

This piece has been in the offing for more than two years but the fear that it would be regarded as gratuitous, self-serving or worse, ultimately bar me from doing the very thing I am most passionate about - writing - had thus far prevented me from ever completing it.

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Holding a mirror up to oneself is often the hardest thing to do for fear of it shattering, but I have been heartened by an increasing number of people of my acquaintance who have begun to share their own experiences of mental health. This is mine.

In 2013, 746 people died as a result of probable suicide according to the National Records of Scotland. On my walk to work one morning that year, my mind shut down and the world as I knew it flipped on its head. For a few brief moments, I contemplated becoming the 747th.

I have only ever divulged this to a small group of people and in truth, I have grappled with whether to discuss it in the public sphere or not. I have drafted this article countless times in my head and each time metaphorically screwed it up and thrown it in the waste paper bin.

The catalyst to finally sharing my past experience was the recent death of a former colleague. While I wouldn’t say we were close, the news nonetheless left me shell-shocked. I had the privilege of calling this young, warm-hearted person my friend, albeit for a brief time.

My friend was fighting a private battle with depression; just how hard the struggle became, I couldn’t say and to surmise any further in these column inches would be wholly inappropriate and a poor tribute to a truly wonderful, happy-go-lucky soul whose light burned itself out prematurely. The world is bereft.

Since hearing the news, I’ve thought about nothing besides how I should have reached out. Could I have helped in some way?

Can anybody help? The truth is, yes. We can. And we should, by being more open about what is essentially an illness almost as prolific as cancer. The rub is how do you tell people that you are struggling with poor mental health without them flinching or inevitably treating you with kid gloves?

Talking honestly about mental illness seems to be the one thing we appear to be incapable of doing. We share every aspect of our lives on social media in what amounts to nothing more than creating a smokescreen, masking an unhappiness that more than one in four of us will experience at some point in our lives, if not this year. Taking into account the stigma that stifles openness on the subject, it is likely to be more widespread than that.

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My now-wife and my mother initially noticed a shift in my behaviour a year into a new job. They have since admitted that they were extremely concerned about my welfare, even then without fully appreciating how bad I had actually let things get.

My initial optimism about progressing further in my career gradually subdued and I slowly began to buckle under a sense that life as I knew it was somehow going to remain the same for years to come. When I couldn’t ignore my anxieties any longer, I became stricken by the fear of what people would think if they knew. By how it would damage any hope of improving my prospects. Worried about showing vulnerability. About admitting to myself that I was ill or damaged in some way.

I gradually morphed into a malcontent who just wanted to embrace solitude but at the same time was filled with dread at the helplessness of isolation. I wanted to hide away and began shutting out those who most cared for me while simultaneously screaming at the top of my lungs for someone to rescue me. No-one can hear you yelling from inside the bell jar.

The void I decided to retreat to offered me temporary shelter from the demons that plagued me but equally threatened to crush what little self-worth I had left.

Just as quickly as I’d considered it, I decided against stepping out in front of a bus that morning. Instead, I rang my wife in tears to confess that there was something wrong. Looking back, this was the day of my liberation. Admitting that I was depressed lifted some of the weight from my shoulders and the heaviness I carried behind my eyes.

A doctor’s visit swiftly followed the next day. I was staunchly against taking tablets and told my GP as much. I thought it was a sign of weakness to be medicated, which shows how little educated I was about depression to begin with.

We eventually agreed on an exercise therapy programme which gave me access to a mentor at a local authority gym who would help me exercise my mind and body. It was highly subscribed and had a five-month waiting list. When my turn eventually came, it went some way in helping me rekindle a sense of self.

Moreover, so did talking. Sharing how I felt, good or bad. The more I opened up to my family and friends, the more I realised others close to me had also fought or were silently fighting their own inner conflict. We initially resorted to using euphemisms like ‘the black cloud’ to take the edge off talking directly about how I was feeling.

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This is not to say that I don’t have the odd bad day now and then. There will always be days when the clouds darken, and with the impending arrival of my first-born, my wife and I have discussed what may lie ahead.

It is more than possible that changes on the horizon could knock me off kilter again but I’ve become empowered by a resilience I didn’t know I had, a strength of character and mind renewed from fighting back.

It is encouraging, to say the least, that prominent figures in the public eye have taken the courageous step to speak out about their own experiences. MPs Charles Walker and Kevin Jones led the charge in the Commons in 2012. This year, MP Karl Turner shared the emotive story of his young nephew who committed suicide. Then of course, there is Isabel Hardman of The Spectator magazine, who recently published a compelling piece about her own battle and the state of play of treatment in the NHS.

Mental health is no longer the elephant in the room, with politicians of all stripes acknowledging more needs to be done to bolster early prevention and treatment. While increased funding - such as it is - is welcome, the focus now needs to shift with urgency beyond statistics and budgets to the humanity enduring this scourge. Stigmas persist for as long as we continue to baulk at unpalatable truths.