Hello and welcome to the first mental health post in the ‘Head’ section of 50FootHead.
This one is very simple. It is a plea, virtually a demand, for any reader to empathise with people who are experiencing or have experienced mental health issues of any kind. (Note: the first correction I’ve made to this post is to replace the word ‘suffered’ with ‘experienced’, even though to be frank it really does feel like suffering)
To this end, all I am going to do here is add links to articles (usually in the first person) that describe one or more aspects of mental illness in a direct, unflinching but hopefully relatable way. You will note that the writers are articulate and sensitive people, just like most of us aspire to be. I hope that anyone who hasn’t experienced these issues will learn and understand a little more, and anyone who has been there will feel slightly less alone and guilty.
“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” (Henry David Thoreau)
- “It’s nothing like a broken leg”. I would recommend Hannah Jane Parkinson’s piece (June 2018) as the starting point for anyone alighting on this page. An extraordinary, honest piece of writing which sets her personal story in the wider context of both government funding and, most importantly, the nature of society’s conversation around mental health. Still the single best piece of writing I have come across on this topic.
- The Broken Compass. ‘Personal reflections on control, meaning and choice in mental health’. An excellent first-person account of what mental illness can do to your thought processes and relationships with others. Also, how a simple diagnosis fails to cover the longer-term implications of distress.
- “What does depression feel like? Trust me – you really don’t want to know“. By Tim Lott. I’m still not sure people with the same diagnosis experience exactly the same symptoms. But this piece does at the very least make it unequivocally clear that depression is not the same as “feeling a bit down”.
- Depression is an epidemic we can fight by talking. By Pete Cashmore. Another first-person account of depression. Sadly Mr Cashmore, a successful journalist and former Countdown champion, died earlier this year. I think by now people are educated enough to know that neither talent nor love can grant immunity. However, first-hand evidence still shocks.
- A moment that changed me: when deep sadness drove me to counselling. By Sachin Nakrani. I think this is one of the milder articles I’m going to link to. Perhaps this will make it easier for people to relate. You will note the writer’s self-awareness, how he emphasises his blessings. And yet still he seeks help. In particular, I want to draw attention to the sense of loss he feels regarding adult friendships, and compare what I write in ‘H2: Walk A Mile In Mine’. Don’t underestimate loneliness, however it manifests itself.
- A moment that changed me: when the doctor told me I was psychotic. Anonymous. Another one in the same series. This is heartbreaking for me to read: too close to home. The main things I would like the reader to take from it are, firstly, the correct meanings of the words “psychotic” and “psychosis”. Secondly, the writer’s acknowledgement that psychosis can stem from deep, unaddressed depression. I would also urge people to read the comments below the main article.
- “I deserve more than to be thought of as crazy”: a journey through mental illness. By Sophie Reilly. This is an excerpt from a posthumous memoir. It’s here to contrast with pieces 5 and 6, and remind you that even sufferers of depression and psychosis can consider themselves lucky if they’re still alive and healthy. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they haven’t experienced symptoms as extreme.
- Aisling Bea talks about her father’s suicide. The first piece not written from the perspective of someone experiencing mental health difficulties. A short and poignant piece of writing, illustrating how someone can grow to understand and empathise even in the most horrific and intolerable circumstances. The conclusion speaks for itself. Although that won’t stop the gobshites who somehow get on the television, will it?
- Tony Slattery: “I had a very happy time until I went slightly barmy”. Interview by Hadley Freeman from April 2019. This piece generated a huge social media response. There was an outpouring of love and sympathy for a fondly-remembered comedian now dealing with the consequences of a massive breakdown.
- Dean Burnett is the author of books ‘The Idiot Brain’ and ‘The Happy Brain’. As the linked Twitter thread makes abundantly clear, he has no (known) mental health issues himself. Instead he writes from the perspective of a neuroscientist. So this one requires more detailed explanation. The key issue is that a journalist, chased out of town for plagiarism some years ago, has received favourable press in some quarters for his recent critique of antidepressants. Burnett is angry at the way the media have promoted what he sees as a dangerous viewpoint, and explains his perspective in detail. He makes particular reference to the (same) media’s ghoulish treatment of a spate of suicides in his home county. I have come across Burnett mainly via the retweets of Nick Pettigrew, freelance comedy writer and “fellow brainwrong” (his words). The latter is one of many people whose depression is successfully treated with pharmaceutical medication. I was treated similarly between 2006 and 2008. I stopped taking the pills and have had no relapse in eleven years at the time of writing. Other things help, of course. But many of those same things help other people, yet still their medication is important, and absolutely no-one should put themselves in a position to gainsay that. All of this illustrates my belief that everyone’s mental health story is unique, and no-one should expect their personal situation to apply universally. That’s why I have included a disclaimer on the ‘Head: Mental Health’ page. And that’s why I’m happy to tell my story, but equally comfortable listening to experts. The same pills, and others, might have saved my life more than a decade ago. I don’t know. That’s the point.
- Actor David Harewood recalls his experience of being sectioned in his 20s. Harewood later presented ‘Psychosis and Me‘, one of three documentaries screened in May 2019 as part of the BBC’s Mental Health Season. The first thing that will strike you is the headline. It’s still difficult for me to say “I feel no shame” about my own breakdown. As you can see in H2, H3 and H4 the consequences were so severe and far-reaching that acceptance is an ongoing process. The other interesting point I wanted to highlight is the importance of identity in explaining Harewood’s breakdown. This factor hasn’t come up in any of the previous links, and I think it takes even more of a conscious effort to empathise with his piece. I’ve studied a lot of (American) black history at BA/MA level and still found it hard to make the mental leap. But trying to do so is its own reward: in the attempt, I examined my own situation and found that certain aspects of identity were probably important factors. For Harewood, his blackness; for me, ideas of class, masculinity and related expectations. I would also recommend some of the comments below the article, especially those from ‘GonePhishing’ and ‘TruthseekerD’ (bottom of page 2 if showing 50 comments per page).
- Another actor talks about how a breakdown and hospitalisation on a psychiatric ward changed his life. This time it’s Christopher Eccleston, one of my all-time television heroes thanks to his defining 90s roles in Cracker, Hillsborough and Our Friends In The North.
Picture (not taken until September 2020) of someone else’s walking shoes, of course. These belong to H (see LEJoG Day 39), fittingly enough given the prefix for the ‘Head’ series of posts.