John's had depression since the age of 5. He makes his case for supporting mental health research - and why mental illness is a problem we should all care about.
I was about five when I first remember feeling depression - although at the time I had no way of articulating that.
For me, it was an oppressive, heavy feeling that made it seem like everything in my life was washed out or uninteresting. During the daytime, I found myself totally drained of energy. At night, I could not sleep.
As a child, I often felt useless and empty – and quite alone in terms of being able to share my experience. It definitely slowed me down. I am lucky that school was still relatively easy for me, at least academically. Had I been someone who struggled with classes, I suspect early life would have been extremely tough.
It took probably a decade before I had any idea what was happening.
Even then, it seemed like something that was not really possible to fix or treat. Mental illness was something that existed in my life but mostly in much more severe ways for other people. As a result, I felt unable to seek help, as if my problems weren’t bad enough to justify ‘treatment’. It’s terrible to feel unwell, but also guilty for not being strong enough to handle that, and somehow weak by comparison to others who have it even worse.
At 21, I finally sought medical support, although this time for a horrible three month anxiety attack that had stopped me eating, sleeping and functioning. I was prescribed drugs to help me sleep. I was far too anxious to try them though, so I didn’t. Instead I gradually muddled my way through and in time the feeling came down. I remember one day feeling ‘ok’ and then my life got started again.
Like a lot of young people, I simply didn’t understand that it was ok to ask for help and to let someone else take the reins.
I also wasn’t very comfortable with the idea that I was mentally unwell – and that the diagnosis still didn’t really explain what was happening. If someone had been able to show me clearly what was going on in my brain, and how treatment would have helped, that would have made the whole thing feel much less frightening. But ‘depression’ or ‘anxiety’, as labels, told me very little.
Depression has remained constant in my life, although I feel more equipped to deal with it now. While it can make me feel stupid, or tired, or blank – I know that good sleep, treats and time with my wife and friends can all help to soften the symptoms until my brain starts to recover on its own. It’s not a perfect system, but it works.
I’m grateful for these experiences, because they have taught me to empathise with others - especially if their behaviour affects me negatively.
Maybe this just isn’t their day. Who knows what they have on their shoulders right now? Knowing that the weather inside your own head can make you an intolerable person (even if you don’t mean to be that way) can give you a little more perspective. Or at least I hope so.
As I get older, I see more and more young people wading through their own struggles with mental illness. We all have a responsibility to support them however we can, even if that’s simply suggesting they speak to someone. No one should have to face serious illness alone, mental or physical.
What is clear to me now is how little we ultimately know about mental health.
The brain is a great frontier – like outer space or the bottom of the ocean - and to understand the geography of this unknown area we need amazing tools, scientists and the funding to make it all happen.
I think MQ is an amazing charity for this very reason. It’s a serious attempt to co-ordinate the massive efforts being made in mental health science, to focus them on the most pressing issues and get results that benefit us all.
It’s an international, holistic response to a problem that applies to every single person on the planet. That’s worth supporting, in my view.
It’s hard to imagine a good future right now. Things generally feel quite unstable (and I’m sure that isn’t just me), but for anyone who is looking to stake a claim in a better tomorrow and fight back, I think supporting MQ is a great start.
Mental health is a global concern and we all need the deep understanding that only science can provide, to ensure that our interventions and support are getting to the root of the problem and really helping those who need it.
MQ means hope, and we could all use a little more of that!
Last updated: 24 July 2019