This article appeared in the Chiswick Herald. Please click here or read below:
Depression - how to think about it and how to recover from it
News reports last week covered research showing that 25% of architecture students in the UK are receiving or have received treatment for mental health problems related to their studies. Unusually this study sought to identify the sources of the distress and was able to list a number of factors - importantly all of these were outside of the students control.
It is often rightly stated that a stigma exists around depression and other mental health illnesses. However the point that often gets missed is that one of the biggest blocks to sufferers in recovery can be their own attitudes to both mental health and themselves for experiencing mental illness. It is really common for people to feel upset with themselves for struggling and to try and almost bully themselves out of their feelings. Unfortunately this tends to result in sufferers feeling even worse and they can become stuck in a vicious cycle of thoughts and feelings.
This research amongst students suggested that financial pressures, workloads, working conditions and sexual and racial discrimination were all serving to damage the mental health of one in four of these students. And as I have written previously, it seems that the mental wellbeing of students and employees in the education sector has been overlooked for some time. So much focus os put on results and processes with little emphasis on wellbeing.
So research like this is really important because it shifts focus when someone is struggling. Instead of questions being raised around how the person is coping (or not coping) with the inference being that they are not doing something right, it can be directed at looking and considering the context in which the person finds themselves.
We know ourselves through our relationships with others and yet when we are having a hard time, it can be really easy to conclude that it is only us that are finding things hard. I wonder just how surprised but also relieved architecture students were when they read the findings of the research? For many I suspect they will have felt intensely relieved, not that so many others struggle but that they are not alone. And more importantly the cause of their depression and anxiety is not simply themselves.
Getting a comprehensive understanding of the issues someone faces and the context in which they live and have come from is crucial in getting to grips with depression. Before anyone can start to recover they need to discover some hope in the potential for them to lead a life without such painful and overwhelming feelings, or as is often the case with depression absence of feeling. And hope comes from the realisation that the depression is only natural given where they find themselves in life, that it is not that they are doing anything wrong but the contrary, that it is only right that given their circumstances they can feel as they do.
Being able to make the connections that makes sense of the experience starts a process whereby positive connections can start to be made. Ways in which the sufferer can start to do things differently, take control, build confidence and distance themselves from the illness and increase their sense of connection with the world, others and their ability to find life satisfying and rewarding.
Again though, during recovery one of the biggest hurdles can be a persons impatience with their recovery. The desire to get away from the experience of depression can be so powerful that they can be vulnerable to almost addictive behaviours. Exercise can be a good example of this, the physiological feelings and rewards available from exercise can lead to addictive behaviour and ultimately this can act to sabotage recovery.
To prevent this it is important to spend time to reflect on whats happening, the changes being experienced and to consider the consequences of decisions moving forwards. It is a common phenomenon that people who appear to be on the point making a full recovery make a decision that can have devastating results. In fact suicide risk can be greatest for people who appear to be in recovery than those in the depth of their depression.
Mental illness is such an unpleasant experience for suffers and their loved ones that it is only natural to try to avoid dwelling on difficult feelings and to want to look forward and focus on the positive however taking time to think about how things are going and how to maintain momentum whilst allowing set backs is crucial.
If you or someone you know is suffering from depression then consider seeking help. A counsellor or psychotherapist will have the right skills and experience to help understand the depression, its causes and then provide support through the entire recovery process.
Patients often ask me how long it will take, how many sessions will be needed for them to recover. My answer is always a simple one - we know we are finished when we no longer have any concerns that are usefully talked through.