Tuesday 16 March 2010

Depression - speaking as I find

It may be hard to believe, but this column never sets out to cause offence.

Not even when discussing Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or (in the interests of balance) “Dave” Cameron. The pain occasionally caused to their diehard fans is, as American commanders mumble when apologetically surveying the ruins of another innocent party’s home, “collateral damage”.

Critics might be on a sounder footing if they complained that I do not know what I am writing about. My usual specialist subjects are British history and public relations (and when did the latter ever feature in a pub quiz?)

But then there is also clinical depression. Claiming that I am offensively ignorant of the subject, as one angry correspondent to Voice of the North did last week, is a bit like accusing the Duke of Edinburgh of not knowing the first thing about tactlessness.

I would rather not bang on about it, but for the record I was first diagnosed with clinical depression as long ago as 1973, and have been treated for recurrences ever since.

Drugs, counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy and psychiatry: I have tried them all, to greater or lesser effect. The pills proved the most successful, helping me to hold down a reasonably stressful job for a couple of decades, but I gave them up six years ago because I was taking so many daily prescription medications that I could sense myself rattling.

Over the years I have found various practical measures that, at least for me, help to combat depression. Getting up early in the morning, having something practical to do, taking exercise and not eating too much are all good ideas. Avoiding alcohol, a noted depressant, is generally sound advice, though there have been occasions when a couple of pints of beer proved to be just what the doctor ordered to achieve a positive mood swing.

Getting really deeply involved in a good book, or an exceptional film, can do the trick for me, as can writing – a diary, blog, letters, emails or even a column. A change of scene is also usually helpful, if it can be managed.

The frustrating thing is having almost 40 years of such useful knowledge at one’s fingertips and still ending up on a sofa completely disabled by despair, which is how I spent the weekend before last. That is why I was a bit angry with myself when I wrote last week’s column, and perhaps inclined even more than usual towards the “Pull yourself together, man” school of thought on the subject.

I know that I am by no means the only depressive to have some sympathy with this approach. However, as I have written before, it is not a helpful way to deal with depressives in general, and particularly those encountering the condition for the first time. They need your sympathy, support and encouragement to seek medical help.

The best excuse I can offer for returning to the subject this week is that increasing openness about depression can only be a good thing. The fact that high achievers like Stephen Fry and Alastair Campbell now talk and write so freely about their experiences helps to remove the stigma traditionally associated with any form of mental illness, while anyone with five minutes to spare and a working internet connection can easily assemble a list far longer than this column of statesmen, writers, artists, composers and performers whose depression was a key component of their characters.

Last week my wife hauled me out of the pit by almost physically dragging me onto a train to London. Today I have risen early and written this column. The sun is shining, spring is here. What could possibly go wrong? The knowledge that depression will almost certainly return is balanced by the assurance that it will also pass. No offence intended.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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