Written by ECBC Contributor Michael, aged 25 and living with a mental illness. #AtAnyAge is a campaign created by ECBC Manchester to raise awareness that we can live with a mental illness at any stage during our lives and always deserve support.
I’ve suffered with my mental health since I was a teenager. At first I thought it was just the standard moody teenager who hated the small town he grew up in, but as I finished university and fell into a deep depression I noticed some of the signs that dated back years. Through the last 10 years or so I have had huge dips and swells in my mental health, my energy, and the way I view myself. I’m glad to say that I have been in a good place for a while now. I have a job that is pleasantly challenging, a superb supportive partner, and a community found by revisiting an old hobby.
I was given umpteen pieces of advice during my down moments on how to ‘get through it’. Some of them were fantastic, others were a quick fix, and others were just flat out unhelpful. So I thought I’d share some of the ways that I used to keep myself going during my bad spells of depression and mental health. They might work for you, they might not, but an honest voice giving their opinion might be of use to someone out there.
Keeping a journal
An old boyfriend told me that writing down what I was feeling at the end of the day could be beneficial. Writing that I was scared, or lonely, or angry about something would give me a chance to vent and get it off my chest. This also helped me piece together what was going on because I had to formulate it into coherent sentences rather than scribbling words and phrases. This started off great but I soon began skipping days. Sometimes I didn’t have the energy to write, sometimes I was too upset, and sometimes I just felt that there was nothing of merit to write down. My routine soon went out the window. I never showed anyone the journal I was writing, and a part of me started to feel I was bottling things up, even though I was writing them down.
If you think keeping a journal could help you, I’d suggest trying to make it a regular thing and keep at it. Even if you think it was a good day, write it down! But if you miss a day or two don’t beat yourself up about it. When you quit smoking, bumming a cig off a friend in a smoking area doesn’t make you a smoker again! Miss a day and come back with the enthusiasm to carry on and see it work.
Finding a hobby
What kept me going for a lot of my early 20s was my involvement in my university theatre group. When I was stressed or upset or even feeling deflated and numb, I knew that going to rehearsal would boost me up. Now, I’m a text book extrovert and so thrive on the energy of other people, but even introverts can find comfort in the activity of a hobby. Whether it is singing on the stage, or singing alone in the shower, doing something you enjoy can give you that escape from your thoughts and release endorphins.
Whether your hobby is a solo activity, or a group one, find some time every week to focus on that. It can be daunting to start something new, but the achievement and accomplishment you can feel is a great success when looking to improve your mood.
Last year I helped set up an inclusive gay rugby team in Sheffield and this has been a fantastic focus for me. Not only am I involved in a sport that I love, but it is specifically made to welcome people who have felt unwelcome in other aspects of sport. It is an inclusive team in every sense and I have found a group of very compassionate friends who I am comfortable with both on and off the pitch. Rugby has helped me boost my confidence and increased my physical activity both in fitness terms and getting me out of the house.
Talking to people
Now I know this sounds super cliché, but stay with me. I kept my problems with mental health to myself for years and it did nothing but harm. I was scared of being a burden on people but I am finally at a point where I am recognising that my family and friends love me and want nothing more for me to feel happy and healthy. When I started to open up about the struggles I had, regardless of why they were there, I soon found that I had a much bigger support network than I thought. Sincere friends that were there to listen, to distract me, and talk me down from a ledge (figuratively).
The conversation about mental health has boomed over the last few years and I know that so many more people are now talking openly about their struggle, the support they can offer etc.
Find a friend, family member, or even someone at work who is happy to listen to you. This sounds daunting but the people that care for you will happily do so. I used to give my friends advice of “Always come to me” but never heed the advice myself. You are not a burden to those that love you and they will most often always make time to listen and help you.
Medication and Counselling
I took Sertraline daily for almost 2 years and I can say that it was a big help. Medication is not for everyone but I was lucky that my doctor and I found the correct drug and dose to help me. I felt calmer, slept better, and saw myself being myself again. This, again, came down to routine and I did miss days here and there but I kept at it. It is important to recognise that medication does not work overnight and it took time for the effects to become apparent. There came a point when I felt they had contributed to me feeling better but had begun to have a negative effect and give me thoughts of “of course I am broken I have to take these tablets”. I spoke to my doctor and it was decided that it was appropriate for me to stop taking them. I had to make a real effort to keep going in other areas of my mental health to justify it but it was the right time for me. Speak to your doctor about the timeline and medication that suits you.
Speaking to your doctor about whether counselling will benefit you is the best course of action, but if the NHS isn’t for you, there are some great apps and websites that can offer confidential conversations with trained professionals.
At the start of 2018 I started attending counselling sessions and these have been a huge plus in my journey with mental health. Whilst a long time coming, the work I have done on a bi-weekly basis have been superb in order to get me talking openly, piecing together information, and understanding why I feel certain things. From grief, to guilt to anxiety, my conversations with a clinical psychologist have been incredibly helpful at analysing how I can shift my focus onto more productive thoughts using mindfulness, psychological theory and a trusted confidant.
Finding one positive a day
This is probably my favourite piece of advice I can give. It is something I have repeatedly suggested to other friends dealing with a variety of struggles, and something that I actively saw work for myself. Every single day I strove to identify one positive thing that had happened. Even when I was at my lowest and it was a struggle, finding even a tiny morsel of good feeling in the last 24 hours encouraged me to focus on things that were going well. Sometimes it was obvious what I could choose, like praise at work, watching a highly anticipated film in the cinema, or a date that went well.
Other times when I had shut myself away, or not had the energy to get up and go to work, I chose something small but significant. Something as passing as seeing and petting a dog on the street can be a huge bump in a bad day. More than once, my positive for the day was that I got dressed, had a shower or cleaned my teeth. Self-care and personal hygiene is something that goes out the window in deep spirals and acknowledging that on that day I had left my bedroom and washed was an achievement.
You don’t need to share your positive with anyone if you don’t want to. You can take 5 minutes at any time in the day to pick your daily optimism and contemplate the good feeling it gives you. You might even realise it early in the morning and eventually have the drive to find a bigger or more significant one by the time you go to bed. But it is important to accept that on some days, treating yourself to a bar of chocolate might be the highlight.
One or more of these tips might help you, and I believe they all can have their benefits no matter what stage of life you are at.
Don’t forget that there are loads of resources available online to help with working through mental health problems, and the support from the super lovely people behind ECBC can help with resources like hobbies, communities and information.