Tag Archives: depression

The politics of madness

Political choices are causing mental health problems. This isn’t going to be a properly referenced article, but everything I’m talking about is out there in the public domain and easy to find if you want to poke about.

A great deal of psychological distress is caused not by something going on inside the sufferer, but by external things. We tend to place the blame on the sufferer, and most interventions focus on what the sufferer can do to sort themselves out, not what needs changing to make their lives bearable.

Twenty years ago when I studied psychology at college it was known that stress causes mental health problems. It was also known that your ability to resolve the problem is the major factor in how much stress you feel. Powerful people with great responsibilities do not feel anything like as much stress as poor people with no control over their lives.

Political choices are increasing poverty and insecurity. Zero hour contracts, precarious renting arrangements, threats to the NHS, to families and business and local environments all piles stress onto people who can do nothing to resolve the problems. The actions of our politicians are increasing mental health problems.

At the same time, funding for mental health care is abysmal, and the system that should take care of anyone too sick to work is such a nightmare that getting into it is likely to cause a person significant mental distress and lead them into anxiety and depression.

To be well, people need to feel reasonably secure and passably in control of their lives.

Poor diet has a negative impact on mental health. You can look at prison research into increasing vitamins in the diet and how that changed things for people. You can look at anything at all about brain chemistry. A person needs protein to build serotonin, and this chemical is key to feeling ok. Anyone on an impoverished diet will have impoverished body chemistry, with consequences for their mental health. That would be everyone depending on foodbanks.

Exhaustion, sleep deprivation, lack of rest and lack of fresh air and exercise all impact on mental health. Everyone I know is tired. We know we collectively have a sleep shortage problem. Noise pollution deprives us of quiet and traffic deprives us of clean air to breathe. Traffic deprives us of safe places to walk. Anything making our bodies ill will also impair our mental health because it’s all one system.

The trouble is, most of us are just statistics. There are more people than our government feels it needs, and so we are a disposable commodity, easily replaced. Why waste money taking care of people when you can throw them away and get new ones? It is, quite simply, the politics of madness, devoid of kindness and humanity. We are being normalised to it, and told any other way of being is naive and unrealistic. We are told all the things hurting us are in our interests – because it all comes down to money and growth.

All the while, the people pedalling this, who have to recast failure as success, the well meaning as traitors, the good as the enemy, the vulnerable as villains, are slowly driving themselves round the bend with cognitive dissonance.


Spirituality and depression

One of the effects that depression can have is a sense of separation from the world. This can play out in all kinds of ways – a sense of alienation from other people, a sense of dislocation from what you’re doing, distance from your own body and actions. The spiritual consequences of this detached feeling can be vast and deeply disturbing to deal with.

There have been springs when my inner season has remained winter and I’ve just not been able to connect with what was going on. There have been many days when it seemed as though all the life and colour had drained out of the world. How do you practice a Pagan faith when everything tastes like cardboard? When all you can do is skim the surface of life and not experience any breadth or depth? When you can’t feel a sense of connection, depression can rapidly become a spiritual crisis as well.

When I am depressed, I have tended to lose either my intuition or my ability to trust it. I’m not creative, or am less creative. I’m not open, so very little can get in, including the things I really need to have permeating me – the seasons, the time of day, the weather, the songs of birds.

I have a suspicion that depression may be worse for Pagans than for people of many other faiths. In many religions, there are rituals, prayers, songs, actions, regular gatherings for worship. It is normal to show up to these because it’s what you do rather than in the expectation of anything massive happening. Paganism has a far greater emphasis on personal revelation, experience of the divine and the numinous, and for a person mired in depression, these experiences are not very likely at all. We’ve got a priesthood, but it’s individuals working alone, mostly. We don’t have the support infrastructures to help take care of people who run things when they are in difficulty themselves.

I hold inspiration sacred. I’m dedicated to the bard path, a big part of my spiritual life is about creating and performing. Again, these are things that it is very difficult to do at all, or to do well when the black dog has sunk its teeth in.

I don’t have any tidy solutions to this. It helps to know that you are dealing with depression and not Pagan-fail. You may not be able to do the things you normally would – anything calling for concentration – so meditation and ritual can be too difficult. You might not feel as you normally feel – no sense of the animistic reality around you, no sense of the gods or the voices of spirit in the wind or whatever it is you normally do. That itself can be painful and disorientating and will add to the burden of depression.

Believing that all of this will pass can be the hardest belief to hold onto.


Depressed or melancholy?

There are people who will tell you that depressed people are just making a fuss, ought to pull themselves together. Take a nice walk, listen to some music, stop feeling sorry for yourself. These are people who haven’t experienced depression for themselves. What makes it difficult is that they may have experienced melancholy, and believe that the depressed person is feeling as they did when that happened to them.

Now, when it comes to a touch of gloom, a down day, a bit of melancholy, this is sound advice. Get outside, go for a coffee with a friend. Listen to your favourite album. Play with a cat. Do something you know will lift your mood, and your mood will lift. So long as you don’t wallow about in it, you can indeed get shot of it, because it’s just a mood and will pass.

From the outside, there are no obvious signs that a depressed person is experiencing something different from that. However, depression means serious underlying unresolved issues. This may be current life issues – stress, lack of rest etc, it can be a side effect of physical illness and ongoing pain, it can be unprocessed trauma, it may be a chemistry issue. Small changes won’t shift it. In some cases, a degree of relief can be found in doing small things, and for some of us, doing small uplifting things over weeks, or perhaps months can really help turn things around – this was certainly true for me. Getting a change in your environment that allows you more good stuff can make a difference. But, a single shot of uplift won’t change things. In the not being uplifted by the supposed cure, the depressed person can slide further in, feeling ever more powerless and useless.

If the depressed person is subjected to a barrage of being told they should be able to fix this with an array of superficial magic cures, they are not going to be less depressed. They may get worse. Tell a really depressed person to pull themselves together, stop making a fuss, stop wallowing, let go of the self pity – and you will fuel the feelings of despair, uselessness and worthlessness that very likely underpin their condition. Anyone really keen to pull a depressed person out – don’t tell them what to do, get in there and see what you can gently do that will enable them to do it. Ask what would help. Offer support. Don’t assume you know best. Many people have no hope of healing until the thing causing the problem changes.

And, for people who are depressed, I know how hard it is not to internalise other people’s suggestions as criticism. There was a meme a bit back that basically said trees are medicine and pills are rubbish – it’s a case in point because it creates the impression that depressed people just aren’t trying hard enough or making the right choices. And so you feel worse than before. If you can hang on to the thought that anyone pedalling this stuff is talking from a place of total ignorance, it helps. The really problematic ones are the folk who will tell you they know about depression, when all they really know is about sadness and fleeting gloom. They mistake their molehill for your mountain. But, when they are confident and you feel like shit, it is all too easy to be persuaded.

The bottom line is, if what someone else says isn’t useful, that doesn’t make them right and you useless. It may well mean they have no bloody idea. It is possible to prevent them from stealing away more of your self esteem if you can bear this in mind.

The bottom line for people on the other side of this is that if you think you have a simple solution for depression, then you are wrong. You may have an effective intervention for passing gloom, but anything that can be fixed with a walk in the park or a kitten photo was not depression in the first place and you need to reassess what you think depression is and be alert to the risk of blaming the sufferer.

I haven’t had a really bad bout in more than a year now. I’ve had rough patches, but I think I’m surfacing. There were no quick fixes.


When you can’t do self care

You watch someone work, and work and burnout, and try to keep going. You try to help them by encouraging them to take better care of themselves, and it doesn’t get through – which is frustrating and off-putting. What do you do? I write this as both someone who has struggled with self-care and someone who has wanted to help others who clearly have the same sorts of issues. There are reasons some people can’t do it and respond badly to being told they need to.

Depression, which tends to cause feelings of low or no self worth, and any other self esteem issues make it hard for a person to feel like looking after themselves is worth doing. The idea of putting yourself first can cause huge feelings of guilt, shame, and failure. Thus a recoiling in horror at the suggestion of taking a day off.

For people living in abusive situations, or who have a history of being abused, it can feel, or actually be unsafe to take care of yourself. Even taking your own needs into account may provoke hostility, verbal abuse, criticism, mockery, being told you are selfish, lazy, useless, not taking proper care of others. You might have someone in your life who will take any excuse to work themselves into a state of anger, and from the anger may come physical violence. What happens if you are exposed to anything like this is you can take on the idea that it is your selfish lazy fault that has caused the perfectly reasonable anger and violence. So you learn to ignore your needs because it is safer to pretend you don’t have any.

For anyone with abuse issues, encouragement to self care can be a panic trigger. It’s really hard to deal with from the outside because it makes no sense to anyone who has not had their right to be a person stripped from them.

The best way to help, is to go in with logic. Here are some tried and tested thought forms.

Burnout is inefficient, if I rest now, I won’t burn out.

I will produce a better quality of work if I am less tired. My concentration will be better.

I am investing in being able to work sustainably and being able to meet more of my commitments.

It’s like putting fuel in the tank so you have something to run on.

A person who is able to stop, draw breath, rest and take care of themselves – even if they think they’re only doing it so as to work better – will slowly improve their self esteem. Once you get off the hamster wheel and aren’t running all the time it becomes easier to think rationally. Exhausted people are not rational, generally.

A person who can’t do self care because they’re in too dangerous a situation needs to realise this and get out. Telling them will not always help much. Support them in feeling worthwhile. Don’t tell them what they should do – that just undermines their already battered self esteem. Tell them that you care about them and want to see them well and thriving, and perhaps they’ll tell you why they are afraid of self-care. Always remember that for an abuse victim, the most dangerous time is the time when they try to leave – this is the time a person is most likely to be subjected to violence or even killed. It is always worth getting advice and support from the police for a safe exit.


Reclaiming my intuition

The trouble with intuition, is that some people will use it to replace evidence in a way that cannot be argued with. The experience of people magically ‘knowing’ things that from where I was standing, looked like utter bullshit, left me reluctant to use my own for many years. I’m equally troubled by the way we use confirmation on social media ‘I have a bad feeling about today, does anyone else?’ Of course someone else does – the internet has a lot of people on it. I’m wary of how we can all use ‘intuition’ to tell us the things we want to hear, to affirm our biases, prejudices, personal insanity…

But life without intuition is thinner, paler and missing a lot of tricks. We absorb far more information than we can consciously process, and what emerges as a ‘gut feeling’ may not be ‘magic’ but instead the result of unconscious processing. If I let myself, then some of my best thinking happens this way.

How do you tell if what you’ve got is intuition, self indulgence, or madness? This is a question I’ve been asking myself for years. It’s especially loaded for me, because depression and anxiety create feelings of doom and misery, and I can persuade myself that I must be psychically knowing that something dreadful is going to happen, and spiral down into it, and make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or I can attribute it to dodgy brain chemistry and let it go… How do I tell which is which?

The only thing I’ve got as a method of testing, is whether I can use it to make fair models of what will happen. If my gut feel about a person, or a situation, fits in fairly well with what happens, then regardless of whether that’s psychic-ness or unconscious processing, I’ve got something I can use. If my impressions don’t relate to reality, then something less helpful is going on. It requires an uneasy amount of self-honesty. Who doesn’t want to be magical, intuitive and special? It’s hard to look at a gut feeling and say ‘you aren’t real, my brain chemistry is playing up’ but sometimes that’s the path to sanity.

Then there’s the question of how we use intuitive insights in social situations. Some people are assholes. If that’s where you’re coming from, then aggressively asserting intuition as a means to power, to subdue or impress others, is just asshattery. It’s not good to go deliberately trying to poke around in other people’s heads and lives, either. It’s an invasion of privacy. If insight just turns up, then there’s a responsibility to use that kindly, and not as some kind of power trip.

I’ve spent some years now trying to be more open to my unconscious mind, to insight and intuition and at the same time to not let my depressive and anxious tendencies latch onto it. I’ve got a way to go, and I’m a long way from entirely trusting myself, but overall I like the trajectory.


Thinking about mental illness

How we think about mental illness, collectively, informs how a person who is suffering is able to behave. If we treat mental distress as something to be got over by ‘pulling yourself together’ or as not a real illness, then people suffering have little choice but to slog on, right up until they can’t.

I’ve found from personal experience over the last year, that if I draw direct lines between what I’m experiencing and some kind of bodily ailment, that I can make better choices about how to deal with it. What I’m going to offer here is crude and limited, but I hope it will work as a place to start.

A mild dose is like having a cold. It will probably clear up on its own in a fairly short time frame and it is possible to keep going and do all the things, although I’ll feel shitty and demoralised. Some time off would speed recovery.

A more serious bout is like having the flu – I really am going to need some time off to recover, I won’t be able to keep going as usual. It could knock me about for a few weeks and I’ll need to take things gently.

At its most serious, it’s like having pneumonia. There’s no way to keep going as usual, serious interventions, including medication and hospitalisation can be a consideration. Like pneumonia, serious depression can and does kill people and needs treating with just as much caution.

One of the important things about relating depression and anxiety to physical ailments is that it moves us towards treating the whole process as a bodily condition. I find this incredibly helpful. It’s not a failing, or a lack of will, or insufficient effort, any more than getting the flu is those things. Care and attention are required for recovery, but recovery is possible. For those who are afflicted in the longer term, other bodily analogies may prove more helpful.

Fevers are a useful analogy because when feverish, we can think all kinds of odd things that we wouldn’t believe for a moment when well. We can see and hear things that are illusionary. A breakdown in mental health can have a person thinking and believing all kinds of unhelpful things. If you can hold onto the notion that what’s happening may be a lot like the flu, it’s possible to avoid believing that the fever dreams of anxiety are based in reality. If depression and anxiety are things that are happening to you, not things you are, then it’s a good deal easier to resist them.


Illness and the magic thing

It’s important to talk about mental illness. Only by talking about it will we challenge the stigma, get rid of the inaccurate myths, challenge assumptions and improve things for everyone.

One of the big problems with mental health is that we treat it as an individual issue, with little or no reference to how context impacts on wellbeing. One very significant aspect of context is the way in which other people react. I’m conscious that many of the same things hold true for chronic illness. Certain kinds of responses silence people who are suffering, make it harder for us to ask for help, and can increase distress, anxiety and alienation. How people react to illness can make ill people more ill.

The big one (I think) is the idea that if we only tried harder and/or did ‘the magic thing’ we’d be fine. What ‘the magic thing’ is varies, but it will be something the person we’re dealing with is sure is a fabulous fix for everything. We’re told we should be on medication, or shouldn’t be on medication. We should make more effort, or get more rest. We should stop eating a thing, or start eating a thing, or do yoga, or practice mindfulness…

The person who says ‘I’m really struggling right now’ is not helped by being told they need the magic thing to fix them. Not least because we’ve all tried a whole array of alleged magic things already, and they mostly don’t save us. When you’re down, and beaten and exhausted and everything is hard about the least useful thing to hear is that you should be making more of an effort with something. Fear of dealing with this silences people, encountering it can kick those who are already down.

The motives for how we respond to illness in others stand questioning. If we make a suggestion to someone else, we may feel that’s us off the hook. We did our bit. We have no further responsibility. We may believe that because we are well, that something we are doing is the reason for this, and not that it might just be luck. Belief in ‘the magic thing’ protects us from having to be afraid that we could be unlucky and get sick. It may also allow us to feel superior, that our cleverly doing the right thing is keeping us well while others fall and suffer because they aren’t making as much effort as we are. Being blamed for illness adds to depression, despair, and a sense of alienation.

There is a balance to find here, because information sharing is a good and often helpful thing, but unsolicited medical advice from strangers is often demoralising. The thing to watch for is the tone. Sharing in solidarity – here’s the thing I tried, this is what happened – can be really helpful. ‘You should do this’ has a very different tone. There’s a power imbalance in it, a disrespect for the person on the receiving end. An implied superiority on the part of the person dishing out advice.

Another way of silencing, dismissing and injuring people who are ill is to tell them off for it. People who are told that expressions of distress are basically attention seeking and not ok learn not to mention it. You’re just making a fuss. You just want to be the centre of attention. You’re playing the victim again. You’re such a martyr… Which begs the question of why a person who is suffering should not be able to say so? The answer is all about the discomfort of the listener being more important than the distress of the person who is distressed. When you are deep in depression or other illness, and the distress caused by saying so is deemed more important than what you’re going through – that really doesn’t help. It’s a massive blow to self-esteem.

Depression and anxiety are at epidemic levels right now. We won’t change that without changing the context in which people are experiencing things.


Seasonal Blues

It is a perfectly reasonable, human thing to struggle with the winter. The shorter days, often with far less sunlight mean those of us in the northern part of the earth are short of vitamin D. Some of us suffer seasonal affective disorder. For some, the cold, the treacherous footing, and the dark nights are a downer. This is the first year in ages where those dark nights haven’t been a real barrier to me having a social life, and that’s in no small part because I’ve now frequently got things to do of a Sunday afternoon.

For anyone whose finances are tight, winter adds extra pressure – for some it means a choice between heating and eating, for some even that choice isn’t available. This is an unkind season, an isolating season, a killing season. Many people roll out of the festive period into the harsh reality of increased debt at the start of the New Year.

I often find there’s a backlash after midwinter festivity – yes, in theory the light is returning, but it seems a long way off, it still gets dark early, it’s still cold, there are a good two months of this to come… but now there’s nothing much to look forward to. The feeling that it should be getting easier can contribute to actually feeling worse about it.

I’m luckier than many people because there are viable solutions for me. I can add colour, warmth and light as needed. I do now have the resources – financial and energetic – to connect with people at this time of year. I have places I can go and things I can do. But I’ve also been on the other side of this, cut off, cold, stuck, and without the resources to change any of it. That’s not a good place to be. If you know someone who could be isolated by this time of year, drop them a line, call them, if it makes sense to show up, show up. It can be a lifeline – in a practical sense and also emotionally.


How to start the day

Back in the summer of 2016, I was ill. More ill than usual, and ill enough to be worried about it. Yet another round of burnout had left me plummeting into depression, but alongside this were increasing signs that my body just couldn’t take the strain any more. I realised that if I didn’t make some radical changes, I could get into serious trouble.

One of the things I did as part of a radical life shift, was to start walking first thing in the morning. Previously I’d been working at the computer by seven am most days. Instead, after the lad left the establishment for school I’d put in a half an hour walk, and hit the keyboard somewhere after eight. It soon became obvious that I was rolling in to work with a clearer head and better concentration, and that some of my ever longer hours had been down to the snail’s pace I’d previously been reduced to.

I promised myself that days would be less than ten hours and weeks would have 2 day weekends, and mostly I’ve stuck to that, and it has helped me enormously.

Walking first thing gets me outside and connected with the natural world. It gets the blood moving, and with my often-sluggish circulation, that’s a real plus. It means I don’t move from bed to workspace of a morning, but get something else in the mix.

It’s really hard, on the days when energy is in short supply, to prioritise walking. Going out first thing knowing I may be compromising my ability to work into the afternoon, is a challenge. Using the time on something for me goes against the grain a bit. But then, how I think about myself is one of the things I’ve had to change to enable me to make progress towards being more well. I had to stop being a resource for others to use, and start being a person. Through this process, I’ve put down a lot of unpaid work, and I’ve changed policy on that. I won’t run round after people who aren’t being nice to me. It’s amazing how much extra time and energy that move has liberated.

During the darkest part of the year, I stopped walking first thing – I hate getting up in the dark, I’m even less keen on going out then. However, there’s now predawn light at the right point in the day, and I’ve gone back to it. I feel good about the early morning walking. I’ll need a more cunning plan for next winter, but I’ve plenty of time to figure that out.


Meditation for depression

Depression tends to take people into the dark places of their own minds. Consequently, any form of meditation that is basically about stilling your mind and noticing your thoughts, will not help. There are times when noticing that you are thinking in a depressive way will be useful, but it can easily reinforce the experience. Further, depression tends to undermine concentration and create feelings of apathy and pointlessness, which can make some meditations technically very difficult.

On the whole, meditation that takes you out of yourself is the most useful. Techniques with the potential to distract, and inspire can help shift a mood while anything that makes you more self aware can perpetuate it.

I recommend deliberate concentration on something other than the self. Anything you like will work. It could be a houseplant or the view from a window, an oracle card, an object – natural or created. Skies, landscapes, birdsong, the feel of grass under your hand. Whatever appeals to you.

Then simply sit with it and pay it a lot of attention. Notice the details, let those details fill your thoughts. If your mind derails you, just take a few deep breaths and go back to what you were doing, or let your attention shift to some other external thing. Do it for as long as you feel comfortable.

In this way, the benefits of slowing down are available without the hazards of introspection.

Physical meditation practices, and recorded visualisations and pathworkings are also worth a thought. I wouldn’t recommend trying to do visualisation from books as the odds are you won’t have the concentration, but a friendly voice on a CD will keep you on track if you want to do something more creative with your brain.

Don’t push yourself into anything that doesn’t feel right. Being gentle with yourself is very often essential for getting out of a depressive hole, any pressure to ‘be spiritual’ or ‘be disciplined’ about something uncomfortable can leave you feeling worse off, not better.