Four years ago, I had two episodes of depression. For me, it was in large part due to my sexuality. I was chasing perfection in every area of my life and being gay seemed like an irremediable blight on my record. Concealing your sexuality teaches you remarkable compartmentalisation skills. I thought my closet was Narnia--capable of squeezing in every dirty thought and perceived character flaw. Needless to say I was wrong, and my teenage years ended with some of the darkest months of my life.
It's not that that the support wasn't there. I have two parents who care about me deeply, a group of friends whom I had known for years and teachers that, in spite of monumental workloads, had great concern for the wellbeing of their students. But the trouble is, we're not taught how to talk about mental health. No one asks how your existential crisis is coming along, or whether the prospect of being hit by a bus is more appealing to you than another day of work. We say 'how are you?' and pray for a 'fine, thanks- you?' so we can get on with our day without having to engage in the messy work of feeling.
The help, for many young people, is waiting for them. The problem is that our fears about how others might respond to our inner turmoil is so strong that our closets have to burst open before we become aware of the help available. So often that bursting takes the form of depression, panic attacks, eating disorders or suicide. Of course this is not the only issue those with mental illness face. Even after accepting their condition, many have to deal with long waiting lists and inadequate treatment - we are far from achieving parity of esteem for mental health. Yet the initial step of accepting that you are ill is arguably the most important. We spend so much time trying to dig ourselves out of our own misery, unaware that we're just making the hole deeper. We fail to realise that what we really need is for someone to help us climb out.
It was only when I hit breaking point and received help that I started to be able to like myself.
On Christmas eve 2011, I found myself in the basement toilet of our local pub, listening to the laughter of my friends and family above as I had my first panic attack. The drunken merriment was too much for me. I couldn't pay attention to what people were saying: it was too loud, too hot, and my gaunt, pale face ached from constantly forcing it into a rehearsed smile (remember to 'smile with your eyes', I'd tell myself, thanking Tyra Banks). I struggled to comprehend what was happening as wave after wave of anxiety trickled over me. I returned upstairs to my father handing out presents to family and friends. It was the 'most wonderful time of year', and I thought I'd just had a near-death experience.
Three weeks later, I found myself sitting in the office of a counsellor.
Receiving therapy was the best thing that ever happened to me. This is not to say that the answer to our problems is endless talking. Yet when you're able to speak openly about your emotions, you free up more of yourself to be genuinely happy, to be creative, to laugh and to love. You also begin to notice a transformation in your own internal commentary. When a friend across the street doesn't wave back to you, rather than deciding that you must have forgotten the time they unearthed your plan to kidnap their family and hold them to ransom, you realise that they may have just been too busy thinking about the last episode of Game of Thrones. In other words, you learn to rationalise the destructive self-talk.
This is not to say that the negative voice isn't still there, or that you should live your life pretending that it isn't. Cultivating good mental health isn't about achieving a state of nirvana or numbing yourself to the negative, it's about developing a resilience toolkit that allows you to react to life's challenges in the best way possible. I have a daily to-do list for good mental health that involves exercise, meditation, and a daily gratitude practice. This list may be your idea of hell's best offering of pretentious activities, but the point is that in the absence of healthy coping mechanisms, you won't cope.
When I was struggling to restrain my black dog, I would peruse the internet desperately for individuals who were as numb as me. Understandably, however, so few people are willing to put a face to their despairing words. While online forums can provide a source of comfort in the absence of external help, these forums inadvertently reinforce a feeling already present: mental illness is shameful. It is for this reason that I'm currently working on the It Gets Brighter campaign, set up in January by a group of students at the University of Oxford. ItGetsBrighter.org is an online platform sharing video messages of hope for those struggling with mental health issues and those who support them. Individuals speak candidly and confidently about their experience with mental illness and their path to recovery. It Gets Brighter shows that there is strength in our vulnerability. Many public figures have supported the initiative, including Stephen Fry (British comedian), and videos have been submitted by Ruby Wax (British comedian), Professor Andrew Hamilton (Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford) and Justin Welby (Archbishop of Canterbury).
Working for It Gets Brighter means I have the privilege of spreading the message that mental illness does not have to govern your life. This might seem obvious when you're healthy, but when you're stuck in the clutches of depression it can feel as though you've unearthed the truth about how dark and vapid your existence is: life is empty, you feel exhausted, and everything is hopeless. The irony is that, far from discovering the uncensored truth about life, mental illness is the most selective of filters. What these filters let through is highly dependent on the mental illness in question (in the case of depression, I was offered only the most spiteful thoughts and feelings) but the bottom line is, left untreated mental illness can become the narrative of your existence. The many inspiring individuals who have submitted videos to our campaign show that it is possible to reverse this downward spiral.
If you have learned to successfully manage a mental health issue, I invite you to reflect on your experience and consider how it might empower and educate others -- remember how isolated you felt but how things improved gradually, and use that to help those who feel that loneliness now. If you are experiencing a mental health issue, what you're feeling does not have to last. Recovery can be a frustratingly slow process, but it is possible. Seek help, be patient, and trust that it gets brighter. If not today, then the next day.