Enough with the ‘magic wand’

This post is written for Suicide Prevention Day, 10th September 2016


This happens to me a lot; when I’m at my absolute worst, when depression has really taken over, there are quite a few well-meaning, concerned people who tell me they wish they could ‘wave a magic wand’ for me. This ‘magic wand’ has been popping up in conversations pretty much ever since I was young enough to still carry around the glow-in-the-dark plastic wand I got free with a McDonald’s Happy Meal. And it’s got to stop.

I get the sentiment. I really do. I’m in the depths of despair so deep it really does seem to the other person like only ‘magic’ will save me now. I’m scaring them and they don’t know what to say or do about it, short of calling in Tinkerbell and the Fairy Godmother to wave away all my sadness in a gust of garish glitter. But depression or even suicidal ideation are not Disney villains and they don’t need magic in order to get them to lift a little bit. They just need someone’s time, presence and a listening ear. That’s literally it.

You don’t need ‘magic’ to sit with someone and listen to them. You don’t need ‘magic’ to acknowledge someone’s feelings. You don’t need ‘magic’ to give someone information about the Samaritans or another listening service. We have to stop teaching people that their problems are beyond the reach of human intervention, that unless you can ‘magically’ vanquish every tiny bit of someone’s mental problems then there’s no point in trying to help. We can help. We should help. We need to help.

A few weeks ago, a man fell to his death from a tower block near to the office where I work. He had tried to get help but it didn’t come. And yesterday, my colleague said to me, “If someone wants to kill themselves, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them.” He wasn’t being malicious and to a certain extent, yes, you can’t take ultimate responsibility for someone’s choice in that respect. But recognising signs and symptoms, offering support, telling people where they can access help and demonstrating that they can get better? These are all things we absolutely can do.

I recognised the absolutism of many people’s feelings on suicidal ideation when I volunteered for Mindline. Throughout all of the information and training sessions I attended, the number one question from trainee volunteers was: “What do you do when someone phones up saying they’re going to kill themselves unless you give them a solution to their problems? What do you say to them?” As if there is one answer to the problem of not wanting to be alive anymore. As if we were all volunteering for the service to learn the ultimate secret of existence. Funnily enough, when this question was posed, the trainers did not shut the curtains, reveal a secret hidden passageway and get us to follow them through it to the Garden of Ultimate Knowledge and Truth where all questions are answered forever and ever amen.

They simply said: “You listen. You reflect their feelings. You ask them what’s brought them to this point. You give them space to talk.”

And, during my time volunteering for the service, it was those things which helped people to calm down, to talk, to relax, even to laugh sometimes. I wasn’t transforming lives or taking away all their problems or guaranteeing that they wouldn’t be ringing the service again the next night. But in that moment, they no longer wanted to die.

Is that magic? Maybe it can feel like it when you’re the one who has been given the relief from the awful feelings. But it’s not unattainable magic, it’s not a magic that has to be wished for with the understanding that it never arrives. It’s something that literally anyone can do. So let’s do it.

Useful reading

Supporting someone who’s suicidal – Mind
How to support someone with suicidal thoughts – Rethink
Supporting a young person with suicidal thoughts – A.L.E.R.T. – Papyrus

Pokemon Go: Why enjoy yourself when you can snark?


It doesn’t matter if something is free, fun and helping people get exercise. If it involves Smartphones and young people, it’s got to be evil.

Up until last week I wasn’t playing Pokemon Go. I didn’t have great memories of Pokemon from when I was a child. The TV show was a weird blur of high-pitched noises and bright colours and the card game was too confusing. I could barely remember what any of them were called so I tended to give them names which described what they looked like (Horse on Fire, Plant Thing, Scary Dude… actually, a lot of them ended up being called Scary Dude).

I was in a bad mood last week so I decided to give it a try. And it’s… been really good.

But it turns out you can play only one of two games at the moment: Pokemon Go or Let’s Sneer At People Who Play Pokemon Go. Apparently by enjoying the game I’m essentially hurling myself into traffic in slavish pursuit of a Pikachu because I’m a brain-dead zombie without an independent thought in my head. Smug memes have been popping up on my Facebook constantly since the game was released, reminding us that if lots of people are enjoying something, they’re probably all stupid.

I don’t have a lot of patience for people who criticise things without actually knowing anything about them, so if you’re not up to speed, here’s my plain language guide to the game:

Pokemon Go is a game where you walk around collecting Pokemon (li’l animals) using Pokeballs (containers). When you’re out and about with your phone, you turn on the game and it’s like looking at a cartoon version of Google Maps. There are roads on it and shapes where buildings are in real life. You walk along the road and your character walks along the road on the screen. The only difference is, when you see an animal on your phone, it’s… not actually there in real life (but I’m hoping that’s obvious).

The object is to collect the animals with the containers but first you have to get the containers. You can only get the containers from Pokestops (specific places around the city). If you run out of containers, you can’t have any more until you find the next Pokestop. It’s a bit like running out of milk and needing to find the nearest corner shop. There are lots of them all over the place and you can see where they are on your phone.

Then you can catch the animals. They sort of appear at random and some are rarer than others, so people tend to get excited when they find the rare ones. Like how people like to look at peacocks but not pigeons? It’s almost literally like that. Once you have enough of one type of animal, you can evolve it (change it into a slightly better version of the same animal – I’m not really bothered by this part as it pretty much just translates to Scary Dude Becomes Even Scarier Dude in my opinion).

The point of making the animals stronger is so you can fight them against the animals of other players. You do this at places called Gyms which again you can see on your phone. I’m not so bothered about this bit either because I’m not that competitive, but it’s something you can do if you want. I prefer the walking around, collecting stuff part.

And that’s more or less it. The benefit for me is the walking around, the colourful pictures of animals and the fact that I’m learning things about the city I live in from playing this game. When you find a Pokestop, a little picture appears on your phone which tells you about the real-life place you’re standing in. (I did have a pang as to whether a Spanish war memorial is an appropriate place to be collecting virtual spangly raspberries to feed to virtual jumping animals, but then again I didn’t even know the memorial was there until the game told me. Swings and roundabouts).

There are also bonuses the game gives you for walking certain distances which gives people an incentive to get outside and go for a walk or a jog. I walked into town and back instead of getting the bus yesterday. It’s a walk I usually hate because it’s incredibly inaccessible for pedestrians. You have to choose between a scary secluded underpass and a very busy Pelican crossing (where many drivers seem to see red lights as optional). There’s an unbelievable amount of traffic and therefore lots of lovely fumes to breathe in. If you’re a woman, it’s also a hotbed for street harassment. In fact, while I was walking yesterday I was accosted by a White Van Man who thought it’d be funny to make high-pitched noises of arousal at me while he was driving past. Luckily, I’d just caught an Electrabuzz so that gave me a decent enough distraction.

And therein lies the beauty of the game; it makes it easier for anxious or vulnerable people to go outside. You’re not worried about what people think of you, you’re focused on getting to the next place where you can collect the shiny things. You’re not anxious about talking to people, you’ve already got something in common. In fact, the only self-conscious feelings I had yesterday were about being judged negatively by people who don’t play, people who may sneer at me should they happen to glance at the screen of my phone. And it hit me: The only negative thing about this experience is all the people who are being negative about it. (If you’re going to bring up stories about people being hit by cars in pursuit of a Jigglypuff, people have been dying in stupid ways for a very long time and I’m not convinced that Pokemon Go is to blame. If you don’t know that looking forwards while you walk is important then there’s not much that can help you.)

I walked far enough to get a decent amount of exercise and avoid paying a fare to sit on a germ-covered bus full of screaming kids which is travelling at roughly 2 miles an hour. But I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been playing the game. That has to be a good thing. So if you want to sneer or draw a cartoon where Pikachu is stamping on my face or something, go ahead. I’m not about to start feeling disgusted with myself for going outside and feeling better.

How to look after your mental health post Brexit


This is my piece of solidarity for anyone else living with mental health problems. We’re facing something potentially really bad right now, so if you’re struggling with it in any way, these tips are for you.

Remember your strength

Uncertainty of any kind is not good for those of us with mental health problems. We have to deal with too much uncertainty internally on a daily basis. When something big happens either personally or politically, it can send our brains into overdrive. What you’re feeling is real – but it is also predictable and it can be managed. All of the coping mechanisms, personal growth and supportive habits you’ve built up haven’t suddenly vanished overnight. You can weather this.

Reach out

Your support circle hasn’t vanished either. Reach out – talk to friends, talk to family. If you can, try and mix in a few topics unrelated to the Referendum here and there. Everyone has something else going on. Something happen at work? Know someone who’s getting married? Saw a weird-looking pigeon? It’s good enough for now, start talking.

Turn off the news

I don’t mean permanently, it’s generally a good idea to be involved in world events. But the news is also about money (lots and lots of money) and plenty of papers and news programmes will run pretty much anything to keep you watching. Don’t put yourself through more than you have to.

Make a first step

Sign the petition. Go to the meeting. Apply for the job. Take a walk. Help someone else. Today can be the day where something good did happen. You’re still here, the world is still turning. Make stuff count.

Don’t neglect your health

You need your strength. Keep eating well, keep moving around. Even if all you can manage right now is opening the curtains (or not even that if the house opposite is plastered in campaign posters), just keep doing whatever you’re doing to look after yourself.

Reach out

I’m repeating this point again – if you crash today, if things get really bad, tell someone. All of the people who cared about you yesterday care about you today. Call The Samaritans on 116 123. We will get each other through this, I promise.

On depression and being a jerk

There’s a great bit in Gwyneth Lewis’ book Sunbathing in the Rain where she talks about how her husband, Leighton, deals with her when she’s at her worst with depression. As well as being caring, gentle and attentive, he’s also not afraid to push back when her moods get too much for the both of them. “There are two people in this marriage,” he says to her at one point in the book, “and you’re not both of them.”

I think it’s a mistake to believe that being compassionate means never throwing back at someone, even when you love them. I’ve lived with depression since I was a child. I’m well aware of its effects on my mind and body. I’m also aware of how much of a jerk I’ve been occasionally as a result of it. I can be a jerk to myself and also to other people. And what I’ve realised is that sometimes I need people to tell me to knock it off when I’m being unfair. I don’t need to be guilt-tripped or judged, but I do need people to be firm when I’m taking things too far. I actually think it’s important.

Which is why I was dismayed to read this paragraph in a recent article on the Blurt Foundation website:

In a moment I’m not proud of, I reacted to a third friend’s engagement with snark, instead of joy… After I crapped on her happy news — and quickly apologized profusely, reminding her I was not in a healthy state of mind — she wrote me off completely. I even tried to educate her about depression’s stranglehold on a person’s emotions and actions, to no avail. “Many [people suffering bouts of clinical depression] say things they normally would not say,” says Melinda Gallagher, PhD, a psychologist in New York City. “It’s important that loved ones understand this as a symptom of the disorder and that with treatment and time, she will feel better and more like herself.”

[emphasis mine]

It’s an understandable story and we’ve all been there, but I wasn’t happy with the parallels being drawn between having a mental illness and behaving in a shitty way to your friends. Being a jerk to the people you love is not a symptom of depression and it’d be absolutely dreadful if friends and family began to expect this from anyone suffering this awful illness. Being a jerk is often what happens as an unfortunate consequence of feeling crappy 24/7, but it is not a symptom. And it’s really, really important that we make that distinction for so many reasons.

Just to be clear, here’s how I define being a jerk while depressed:

  • Making snarky comments
  • Spreading rumours
  • Name-calling
  • Taking (or breaking) other people’s things
  • Demanding that people be there for you whenever and wherever you choose and if they don’t, they’re not “true friends”
  • Personal insults
  • Ignoring other people’s needs or arguing about their legitimacy
  • Any physical abuse of any kind, including behaving in an aggressive or intimidating way

Here are some things which do not make you a jerk while depressed:

  • Being generally irritable and angry
  • Cancelling plans because you have no energy
  • Not being able to keep up with work of any kind (including housework)
  • Not being able to get out of bed/shower/brush teeth
  • Having memory lapses
  • Appearing sad or withdrawn; not being able to have conversations
  • Not taking advice (this is general well-meaning advice, not medical or legal instruction)
  • Self-harm (we get into murky territory here because some can argue that there are instances where other people will be impacted by this, but if you’re so far under you’re actually causing harm to yourself, it’s not conducive to assume you can take full responsibility here)

All of these things are things you cannot help when you’re ill, or at least not quickly, so they do not count as shitty behaviour. Once you’ve established whether or not your behaviour was unacceptable, here’s how you apologise:

“I’m sorry. That behaviour was shitty and I shouldn’t have done it. It wasn’t fair on you.”

Here’s how not to apologise:

“I’m sorry, but I think I’m partly excused from my actions because mental illness.”

“I’m sorry, but I think I’m partly excused from my actions because mental illness AND I’ve had a bad day at work/my cat died/I’m going through some hard stuff in therapy/I can’t find my Avengers DVD.”

“I’m sorry. *gap of five seconds* Here’s loads of information about why my shitty behaviour is excusable because mental illness.”

“I’m sorry, but I really need you to be compassionate and understand why I said those shitty things to you because mental illness.”

“I’m sorry, but you’re not depressed and your life doesn’t suck so I get a free pass to be a jerk to you every now and then because somewhere in the gnarled, dark parts of my psyche I believe it’s evening the score a little.”

Remember: your illness is not your fault. All of the rotten feelings and symptoms you may experience on a daily basis are not your responsibility. However, your shitty behaviour to other people absolutely is your responsibility. You’re ill, but you’re still a person. You don’t get to demand that other people give you special treatment when you’ve hurt their feelings without reason. And having an illness is not a good enough reason.

(What if I can’t apologise?

I get it. You’re sunk. You’re so far under you don’t even know which way is up, let alone who you’ve just hurt with whatever you said. If you can’t string the words together to apologise (or if you’re feeling unclear whether what you did was shitty), remove yourself from the situation as fast as possible. Saying “I need five minutes” or “I can’t talk about this any more right now” is good enough, as is simply not talking. Whatever you do, just don’t say anything else!)

I can’t burden myself with huge amounts of guilt over unfair things I’ve said while depressed because that helps no one. What I can do is own up when I’ve messed up. In fact, it’s important that I do. It’s my way of stepping back into the world, saying “Hey! I’m still here! Hold me to account for my actions!” And that’s actually a really important part of my recovery.

Why every article about cleaning is annoying


This is how every single article about cleaning and decluttering looks to me:

Step one: Just clean everything. Step two: You’re done!

When trying to find support for cleaning your space when you’re really bad at it, all the advice seems to be “just clean up already!”. I’ve seen How-To articles which say things like Make sure you clean up everything after you cook a meal. There’s nothing like having a tidy kitchen!

To which I respond, “Yeah, no. That’s sort of my problem? That I can’t do that?”

I clearly wouldn’t be looking for so much information about cleaning and decluttering if I were simply too ignorant to understand that when you clean, things get cleaner. It’s not that I’m incapable of physically cleaning. I can buy cleaning products and sponges and I know how to use them. It’s just that the way in which I’m cleaning is seriously annoying me.

First, it’s knowing where to start. When you’ve got to the point where you can barely see the carpet and your sink doesn’t look like a sink anymore from all the gummed-up plates that are covering it, it’s really, really difficult to think “OK, I can tackle this calmly and logically without screaming and setting fire to everything.”

Second, it’s knowing where you’re actually putting everything when you live in a place with little to no storage or surface space. If you have no shelves or cupboards, this gets difficult. You put one thing down and topple three others. You end up using the floor as a last resort and things stay there for weeks until you actually need to find them (and of course you can’t). Living in a small place which contains two people means your mess ends up like one of those contamination games like Go – you move something to what looks like an empty space and all of a sudden everything around it turns into even more mess.

Third, it’s being able to break through this block for only a few hours a week rather than being able to clean up as you go. It means I might spend all of Saturday doing nothing but cleaning and then be too tired to actually enjoy living in a place that looks nice.

It’s not that I’m a hoarder or that I’m surrounded by stuff I don’t actually need. I quite enjoy taking sackfuls of stuff to charity when I know I don’t need it anymore. It’s just that the stuff I do need (insurance details, shoes, mugs, pens, wrapping paper) tends to end up in a big soup of General Life Stuff which just will not stay in it’s correct place. That and cleaning up after cooking often becomes a physical impossibility to the point where, for a long time, my sink was always full of dirty dishes and hygiene became an issue.

Some people are totally fine with living in mess. For me, it’s deeply embarrassing. I hate inviting people round to my flat because I’m so ashamed of what a state it is. I hate stepping on things and breaking them because I haven’t put them away. I hate not being able to find anything because everything is piled on top of everything else.

I’m aware that having depression is going to make cleaning up after myself harder than it needs to be. It’s certainly an energy-suck to live with something you have to fight first before you do anything else. But while I can generally get in the shower, put clothes on and head out to work everyday, the mess issue is one I haven’t managed to conquer yet. And I don’t think I’m going to conquer it by reading lots of things which tell me to “just do it”.

Stigma Lite: Why we should sweat the small stuff

I had a discussion today about how to react when people use offensive terms about mental illness or speak about someone with a mental health problem in a stigmatising way. The idea came up that a very small fraction of people mean to be offensive – the majority of people just do it through ignorance. The implication being that we should mind less when people are offensive through ignorance – they didn’t mean to do it, so we shouldn’t get upset.

Which brings me back to this point again: stigma is pervasive. It’s not just the horror movies based on mental institutions or people being called “crazy” or “nuts”. The small things can be just as devastating to someone’s life even if people didn’t mean it.

The idea that something should affect you less just because the person didn’t mean to do it doesn’t make any sense. Intent matters in terms of how we respond to someone, not how their actions affect us. If someone steps on your foot, it hurts just as much whether they meant to do it or not. If someone says something derogatory about people with mental health problems (or treats you badly because of your own mental ill health), it hurts just as much whether they did it through ignorance or maliciousness.

In terms of how we actively respond to someone, of course there’s a difference. We don’t shout at people who stepped on our feet by accident and we don’t behave sternly or angrily with people who use stigmatising language when we have reason to believe they didn’t know what they were saying. But in terms of how to feel when this kind of thing happens? There’s no difference. It hurts just as much. And it can have just as much of a damaging effect on people’s lives.

When a boss decides to sack someone because they reveal their mental health problem. When a friend turns their back on another friend. When a worker attributes their colleague’’s illness to “oversensitivity” or “a lack of resilience”. All of this hurts people. All of this ruins lives. And all of this can be attributed to ignorance and not malicious intent. The boss and the friend and the worker aren’t bad people. The boss believes the employee could be a liability and they can’t offer them the right support. The friend is sick of how much their friend relies on them and truly believes they’re just attention-seeking. The colleague thinks their colleague is getting special treatment for no reason and they should just try a bit harder. This is ignorance – it’s not wilful but it has consequences. Where there’s a misunderstanding of what mental illness is, there is stigma.

Ignorance breeds fear which breeds hate. When we make thoughtless comments or stick labels onto people, we are contributing to something dangerous, something which can destroy people. We need to challenge ourselves and challenge other people and realise how deep stigma can go. We also need to comprehend the duality of being hard-working, decent people and being ignorant of things we don’t understand. You can be a good person and make a stigmatising comment without thinking. You can make stigmatising comments through ignorance and be a good person. The two things don’t cancel each other out. It’s up to us to decide whether we learn from something or block it out. Because there is no such thing as Stigma Lite.

If ‘self-care’ is something you can fail at, I don’t want it

Whenever there’s a lose-weight-fast food advertised on the TV (usually some form of disgusting syrupy yoghurt), there’s usually a disclaimer in small print at the bottom of the screen: Use only as part of a balanced diet. Implication being that it’s not a good idea to rely solely on diet products to lose weight because there are many other things which need to be taken into account. The problem with the idea of ‘self-care’ is that, within online and offline communities promoting mental health, the need for a similar disclaimer isn’t always acknowledged.

There are dozens and dozens of blogs, Tumblr accounts, memes and pictures dedicated to self-care, so many that digital ‘self-care’ has become a movement of its own. There are some days when I find it quite nice to be able to scroll through lots of beautiful, life-affirming pictures of sunsets and swirly-scripted quotes on the internet. Then there are other days when all of it makes me feel seriously inadequate, like if I can’t bake a cake in the shape of a rainbow or draw an amusing cartoon where my depression takes the form of a dinosaur or something then no one will really give a shit what happens to me. It kind of makes me forget that coping with having depression is generally quite boring and that’s normal.

Offline, you have new services such as care packages for people who are depressed or otherwise unwell. The Blurt Foundation do a monthly ‘Buddy Box’ which is full of various comforting items like socks and bubble bath and colouring books but it’s quite expensive at around £22 a month. If you’re depressed, then it usually follows you’ll have cash-flow troubles as well so I’m not really tempted by this. I’m sure many people do find it helpful but when it’s being put forward as a way to alleviate the symptoms of depression, I start feeling a bit weird. I knew bubble bath existed before I got ill and I’m also broke – if anything, now I’m more uncomfortable.

There was another interesting point I saw recently in this article, about the fact that a lot of these self-care options are not very inclusive (also, with all the pictures of cute puppies, flowers and cartoon characters, I do worry that a lot of them are quite infantilising too). They also don’t focus on something very important: they’re not really going to make you feel substantially better if you’re seriously unwell. It’s not enough just to be able to “look after yourself” when you’re sick. We don’t expect that of people with physical illnesses so why should we expect that of people with mental illnesses? Self-care should be something you do in the meantime, while you’re waiting for help to come (much like practising First Aid while you wait for an ambulance). Getting these self-care options intertwined with treatment for serious mental health issues makes me feel really uncomfortable.

The rise of ‘self-care’ culture can also be a form of gaslighting; when someone tries to get you to believe that the problem you’re facing would disappear if you simply learned to look after yourself better. In its worst form, it can be a way of putting barriers up to maintain the status quo at all costs (“We’re not going to change your working conditions – you should leave this job in order to look after yourself.” “We’re not going to make this social situation more comfortable for you – you should stay home so you can look after yourself.”)

This kind of toxic soup of psychobabble and passive-aggression means you end up blaming yourself when it’s actually outside of your capacity to be able to change what needs to be changed. We need support from other people in order to improve our lives when we’re not well, whether it’s a doctor or a counsellor or a partner or a supportive colleague. Palming off someone else’s distress as an issue of ‘self-care’ when actually it’s a lazy employer or a lack of support services or mental health stigma rearing its ugly head is unethical. ‘Self-care’ is often plugging a gap which desperately needs to be filled by proper medical support, and this needs to be acknowledged. In the meantime, I hope people who are ill can remember that it’s OK for self-care not to be enough – and it’s OK to get angry when the help isn’t coming.

In praise of being creatively rubbish

I used to buy colouring books quite a lot, surreptitiously scurrying into children’s toy shops and making up excuses involving non-existent nieces and nephews. They only cost a few quid back then, whereas the stacks which seem to be available in shops nowadays are really expensive. That’s not the only reason I don’t buy them anymore (although I do have to ask who can afford these intricate wonders?).

The real reason is that I have enough stuff in my life which fulfils the function that colouring does. I play games like Solitaire when I want to do something repetitive and mildly satisfying. I watch TV when I want to turn my brain off. I do cross-stitch when I want to create something without being creative. I don’t need colouring anymore.

And that’s all right, for me. Maybe if I didn’t have those other things, I’d actually quite enjoy colouring in. It’s when I see mud-slinging coming from both sides of the colouring debate that I start to get uncomfortable. One side is adamant that colouring is ‘childish’ and that anyone who enjoyed it should be ashamed of themselves for not wanting to ‘grow up’. The other side feels certain that colouring is a ‘mindful’ and even ‘creative’ activity. And both sides have me scratching my head.

I really wanted to think about this because I’m someone who lives with depression and I’m all for anything which helps people feel better. I’m also someone who loses confidence in their abilities (particularly creativity) quite quickly, so I’m all for anything which helps people to feel better about what they do. Colouring books seemed to sit somewhere in the middle.

Creativity (to create, to bring something into existence) requires a degree of risk and this risk is actually very important, particularly for people like myself who live with mental health problems. It’s the risk that you might disappoint yourself, but also amaze yourself. It’s the risk that what you do might not be what you want it to be (or at least not at first). It’s the risk that you might actually be a creative person after all (and what would that mean for your life?) Colouring doesn’t present you with this opportunity to give up your previous ideas about yourself and really work at something which is entirely yours. Does it have to do this? No. But the idea of it being a creative task in itself is, I feel, misleading.

In order to develop creative skills, you have to learn to be rubbish at things. There aren’t many people who are naturally talented at art or writing or music. People who are very impressive at these things tend to become that way through hours and hours of things going wrong. Learning to be rubbish at something is a very useful skill. It’s especially useful if you tend to feel bad about yourself a lot of the time. Giving yourself permission to fail is a powerful thing and it’s really not something that’s encouraged (I once took a beginners’ art class where several members of the class were too terrified to even touch the art supplies for the first 20 minutes). This skill is something that the careful lines of grown-up colouring books can’t really supply.

It’s also misleading to say that these colouring books are the ultimate antithesis to the kind of productivity that everyone feels pressured by in this day and age. The kind of valuable learning and growth that arises from creating something isn’t the same as productivity. It’s not productive to sit and play the same six chords on the guitar for hours, or to drop juggling balls over and over again or to draw a tree which looks nothing like a tree. The endless practice of creativity and learning isn’t only rewarding when you get a badge at the end. It can help you feel proud of yourself. It can show you truly what’s possible, whether you end up mastering the skill or not.

I also don’t like the idea that colouring was ‘mindful’, in a similar way to mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness requires being very aware of your thoughts without giving in to them. When colouring, you’re not required to have any thoughts at all, other than ‘What colour should I use next?’ Which is totally fine, but it’s not a ‘mindful’ activity because you’re not required to be aware of anything except the page in front of you. It’s another way of turning down the volume on your thoughts – vital when those thoughts are destructive, but unhelpful when it comes to cultivating brand new ones (it is of course highly likely that, at this point, most people would put down the pencils in favour of doing something else, like I did).

It’s completely valuable to replace harmful habits with harmless ones such as colouring in and it’s vital that people feel what they do is supported. It’s not ‘childish’ or ‘dumb’ to enjoy colouring in, but neither is it particularly ‘creative’ or ‘mindful’. And feeling it’s all right to be creatively rubbish is very important for boosting your self-image – that crap drawing of a tree is every bit as good as all of your immaculate colouring book pages because you made it.

What’s the point of ‘speaking out’ about mental health if no one joins us?

So, in researching mental health stigma specifically in the news media, I’ve had an idea: There is a serious disconnect between reports of mental health generally and reports of individuals who actually live with mental health problems.

Here are some headlines I’ve pulled from the Bristol Post website about individuals with mental health problems, all of which were published in the last 12 months:

image of news stories

The top three stories are examples of the ‘people with mental health problems are scary/dangerous’ stereotype. The bottom story is about Charlotte Bevan, the new mother who jumped to her death with her baby not long after giving birth. This story is an example of the ‘people with mental health problems are tragic’ stereotype. (I’m not saying the story wasn’t actually tragic or didn’t need to be reported on, just that it’s a common theme in news stories).

And this was a reoccurring theme in pretty much all stories concerning individuals who have mental health issues. Any time you see a qualifier like ‘psychiatric patient…’ or ‘Mrs Jones, who lives with mental health problems…’, you can pretty much guarantee the story is either going to be scary, gruesome or tragic.


It’s important to note that these are not the only stories featuring mental health which have been published by the Post. There have been plenty of stories about mental health which are not scary, gruesome or tragic. But I think it’s equally important to note the form which these stories take, because they’re basically either press releases (advertising local services or national awareness campaigns) or local people who are ‘speaking out’ about their experiences with mental health issues in order to raise awareness.

So these kind of ‘speaking out’ stories are quite positive and life-affirming, with lots of useful information in them. I’m not saying they’re bad at all, but they definitely form a third category in which mental health is reported on: the ‘speaking out’ category. Mental health is only reported on positively when there’s a distance between the individual and the illness. These kind of stories are not about an event or an incidence in a person’s life unless that event is simply having a mental health condition at all.

For example, it’s not ‘Psychiatric patient runs art class at local hospital’. ‘Mentally ill man wins Employee of the Month.’ But, given the fact that the vast majority of mentally ill people are not scary or tragic and are basically just doing everything alongside their illnesses, why on earth couldn’t this be the narrative? And is it a problem that it isn’t?

I think it is. I think it’s a total pain that this hasn’t been seen to be a problem, that people are not allowed to be mentally ill AND interesting, positive people. You’re only allowed to be the centre of the story as a person with mental health problems if you’ve done something terrible or you’ve decided to ‘speak out’ in a sanitised, ‘inspirational’ way for the press. If we keep making it so that people’s mental health conditions have to be the centre of the story, positive or negative, then how are people ever going to understand anything about them? What’s the point in ‘speaking out’ again and again and again when it doesn’t actually represent what my life is like?

I’m done ‘speaking out’. I’m done ‘raising awareness’. By which I don’t mean that I’m done talking about mental health, just that I’m done with the gap between myself and the story. I’m a person, damnit. I’m Woman With Mental Health Issues Enjoys Cup of Tea. I’m Mentally Ill Girl Holds Down Two Jobs. I’m Psychotherapist Client Occasionally Makes Mistakes and is Basically Human. I’m not an inspiration, nor am I a gruesome piece of clickbait. From now on, I’m not ‘speaking out’ – I’m just speaking.

Want to help me through depression? Tell me your problems

There are many things I hate about depression. The lack of energy. The spiralling thoughts. The tendency to rely on cheesy snacks as a coping mechanism. There’s something else that bothers me a lot, and I don’t think it’s specific to depression, just any long-term chronic illness – the fact that people stop asking for your help.

The amount of times I’ve asked someone how they are only to hear them say “Oh, I don’t want to burden you with my problems – you’ve got enough to deal with” is quite staggering. It’s as if I’m about to undertake a mission to Mars or perform a quadruple bypass operation on someone, not just deal with the day-to-day suckage of depression. I know the intention is good and people really feel like they’re helping, but all this avoidance does is make me feel more like an alien than I really am.

I like being able to provide the space someone needs to talk something out. I like to work at developing the skill of listening – it’s really interesting to me. The balance between Helpful Friend and Egotistical Know-It-All is precarious – just because I want to help doesn’t mean I’ll always be the right person to do it. That and all the times when I’ve had to catch myself and think, “Am I really listening to this person or am I just thinking about what I’d do in their shoes?” It’s something I really value.

So when someone says they don’t want to talk to me, even if they’re trying to help me, I can’t help feeling crap about it. Of course, it could just be an excuse to get me to leave them in peace which of course I can respect. But it is irritating when people assume that I’m incapable of helping them out just because I’m depressed. Not only that but apparently they want to assume total responsibility for my actions and choices by ignoring the fact I could just say “no” if I wasn’t feeling up to it.

I’ve heard people with illnesses such as cancer say the same thing – that when they become ill, no one wanted to go to them for help anymore. They felt isolated from their friends because people assumed they didn’t want to be “burdened”. There are limitations involved with having a serious illness but it doesn’t change who you are – if you were a helpful person before, you’ll be a helpful person afterwards. Telling someone you used to go to for help that you’re not going to do that anymore is like giving them another bereavement to suffer – not only do they not have their health, they also aren’t allowed access to an important part of their personality.

Pretty much everyone knows that it’s easier to help other people with their issues than it is to fix your own. The “burden” of someone else’s problems doesn’t sit in the same place as my own personal problems – it’s not the same thing. Don’t assume that just because someone is depressed, they’re incapable of helping anyone else going through the same experience.