Molly Huddle and the race for self-worth

I’ve been thinking about Molly Huddle. If you don’t know who Huddle is, she ran the 10,000 metres at the World Championships last week. Currently, the internet is full of people laughing at her, calling her arrogant, stupid, an embarrassment to her sport but she actually ran a pretty good race. She was leading a lot of the way through and she put in a decent amount of effort into chasing down the two experienced women who eventually overtook her. Exhausted and watching her chances of gold or silver fade away, she raised her arms in triumph at at least collecting the bronze… only to have her teammate Emily Infeld zip across the line at the last second to snatch it.

People said she was stupid for letting up in the last few seconds, that she was arrogant for celebrating before the medal was assured. There’s a certain amount of disrespect in assuming that pretty much everyone else in the race had just faded away into nothing, for sure, but she had her eyes on the prize and she’d spent the whole race fighting for it. The question in my mind was not whether or not she deserved a medal – with the amount of work put in, she certainly deserved to walk away with something. It was whether or not she knew what she was really fighting for.

After she scores were announced, she burst into tears. “I’m old!” cried 30-year-old Huddle. “This chance will never, ever come again.” There speaks a person well-versed in writing herself off. I should know, we can smell our own. Her fight was a fight shared by anyone who knows they are unacceptable without the ultimate prize (whatever it is), those of us who spend days and weeks fighting to be the best and knowing that nothing will ever be good enough. If you want to be depressed, this is a really good way to go about it.

I’m not a runner – I actually can’t run at all because of my knees, which upsets me greatly as I love running. But I have my own battles to fight nonetheless. There are some days where I am determined to get everything done, to clean my entire flat, learn 6 languages before breakfast, practice 3 hours of yoga and write a book of poetry. Then the washing machine breaks and I can’t find that really important thing I need and my poetry is shit anyway so why I am I trying and before I know it I’m watching someone else dart across the line to take my prize and leave me in the dust with a lost chance which will never ever come again. Only that person is me.

Sometimes you push yourself to the limit and things go wrong as a result. It’s unfair that pulling out all the stops can mean you end up with even less than you hoped for. If Huddle had just focused on taking it steady and getting to the line, she could have had something, but then again maybe she couldn’t – there’s no way of knowing at this point. But seeing yourself as being ultimately good and acceptable and your achievements as impressive is intangible – all the medals in the world don’t even come close.

Maybe Molly Huddle will make her comeback and maybe she won’t. I hope she does. I hope she’ll be standing on the start line at the Olympics feeling pleased with herself and ready, wanting to run a race she can really be proud of, whether or not she leaves with the shiny bit of metal. Maybe she’ll be able to see her legacy not as someone arrogant and stupid but as someone who is determined and fought for what she knew she deserved, even if she didn’t go about it in quite the right way this time.

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The “Aw man, it’s racist” moment

An “Aw man, it’s racist” moment is a time when you go back to a book, film or TV show that you really liked a lot when you were younger and find that it’s got some pretty problematic content that you didn’t pick up first time around. These moments are usually but not exclusively experienced by white people, as we’re a lot slower to pick up on racism when it happens. Usually you feel shocked at first, then irritated because you have to start reassessing your opinion of this thing that you thought you just liked without question.

I had one of these moments recently when reading a favourite book that I hadn’t properly read for a little while. I still enjoyed it, but a couple of things jumped out at me which hadn’t before. Pretty much all of the main characters are white (which again, I hadn’t really paid much attention to before) and there are only two black characters who speak during the whole story. One is a woman begging money on the side of the road who the main character gives an expensive bracelet to. The other is a man who is rude to the main character in a Laundromat and she fantasises that maybe he’ll start “murdering everyone” and she’ll have to call the police.

There’s also a Chinese man who talks in broken English (“So! How you like?”) and a bit where the main character fantasises about having a Japanese lodger who will have “black hair and a soft voice and wear a beautiful turquoise kimono”. The main character actually says at this point that she is “possibly even being racist” but that she doesn’t care.

… I’m not an expert but I’d say that’s more than possible racism.

This wasn’t a hugely bad “Aw man, it’s racist” moment as they go, but I was still a bit startled that a book that I’d liked so much before could have such obvious racist stereotypes in it. The characters weren’t hugely problematic in a standalone sort of way but when I thought about the many many many times black and Asian people had been portrayed this way before in popular culture, it didn’t make me feel great about continuing to see the book as a favourite.

Unfortunately, once you’ve had an “Aw man, it’s racist” moment, it takes a hell of a lot of backtracking and “am I being too sensitive” thoughts to try and force your brain back where it was before you saw the racism. Even then it doesn’t really work, you still feel a sense of unease whenever you go back to it. Then you start questioning other things about it (is it OK that the only gay male character in the book responds to a burglar by hiding and wailing, “We need a man in this house”? Is it cute that the love interest tells the main character loads of stuff about astrophysics or is he just a massive mansplainer?)

The trouble with trying to tell people when you’ve spotted something racist in a favourite book or film is that they immediately assume you’re “being too harsh” and need to be pulled back from whatever extreme edge you’re teetering over before you start tossing your entire book collection into the bin. I still like the book and will probably still read and enjoy it on occasion. In a way, it feels better to have recognised what’s problematic about it so that I can bear this in mind in my own writing and when I choose to recommend certain books to other people.

With most popular culture (same as with people), things are rarely 100% racist or not racist. We need to stop getting hung up on binary explanations and start pointing this stuff out for what it is. In this case, it was a decent book which has offensive stereotypes that shouldn’t have been there. Saying “That thing you said/like is racist” isn’t some sort of permanent curse that follows you around forever – it’s a learning curve, or at least it should be and I appreciate it.

Disabled feminists: When are the rest of us going to get with the programme?

We’re still not getting it, really, us white, cis, het, able-bodied folk. For starters, many of us still don’t like being referred to this way. “How ridiculous!” we think (privately). “Can’t they all see that we’re just ordinary?? You know, not black, not gay, not using wheelchairs. Normal. If you need anything else addressing, we’ll have to get round to it later on.

Yuck…

I recently had a discussion with the Bristol faction of the Women’s Equality Party about their choice of venue for their first meeting. They picked a well-known coffee shop which I actually quite like. Trouble is, it’s towards the top of one of the steepest hills in Bristol. With steps leading up to the door. And some more steps going up to the second floor where the meeting is happening. And then a whole bunch of steps going down to the loos.

I didn’t feel good about this, so I sent them a message and asked if they’d considered a more accessible venue. They said they already knew the venue is “not accessible upstairs” but they were struggling to find a free venue to avoid having a paying event for the first meeting. They then asked me if I knew of any accessible venues in central Bristol that I could recommend.

I did, but I knew that having absolutely no budget was going to be an issue (as it has been for the Bristol Feminist Network). Still, I messaged them back with a list of low-cost meeting venues put together by Voscur and also some details about Hydra Books which is cheap with an accessible entrance and shop floor but, sadly, no accessible toilet. I still figured it would be better than the original venue so I waited to see what they thought (while trying to swallow my irritation that they hadn’t really addressed the issue publicly so far).

They took a few days to get back to me to say that Hydra looked a good option but “the toilet is equally an issue” so they’d decided to stick with the original meeting place “purely for pragmatic reasons”. Then I was confused. How was it only theoretical that disabled women would want to join a women’s equality party? Why had they decided to stick with a completely inaccessible venue versus a partially inaccessible one? Why had they chosen specifically this coffee place when there was bound to be another commercial, accessible venue somewhere else in the city centre? And why were they now on Facebook, telling everyone how important it was that anyone attending the meeting “buy drinks and snacks” to support the venue when they specifically wanted to keep it non-paying?

They had at least, to their credit, addressed the issue of inaccessibility by extending “enormous apologies” and inviting anyone who cannot attend for this reason to send them a message. I asked them whether they would consider asking people to chip in towards an accessible venue instead of buying drinks. They said that wouldn’t be possible because they would have to “do ticketing and run a formal administration process”. They also said they’d spent two days trying to find a free, accessible and central venue and had now run out of time (no mention at this point of the low-cost alternatives I’d sent, including Hydra which is around £10 for an evening meeting).

I like to think that I always try and see everything in a fair and reasonable light. If someone is saying something I don’t understand, I usually assume there’s a good reason and I try and find that reason. Unfortunately, by this point, my brain was getting tired of being twisted in knots. The final straw came when they told me that they “need more people to get involved to get more stuff sorted” and that the agenda for the first meeting would be to “sign up people for different roles, one of them being someone who can invest time to sort this out.”

To which my brain just went “NOPE NOPE AND ALL KINDS OF NOPE. This isn’t an item on a list to tick off or some sort of specialist issue which you only need to bother with once you’ve got enough people. You’ve decided to set up a group to talk about women’s equality and you’ve decided there’s certain women who aren’t quite equal enough to be involved. They’ll have to wait on the street outside while you “allocate roles” to people from above their heads. And how on earth does it make sense that any decision about a future, appropriate venue will have to take place without those who actually need it?”

I’m not writing this to grandstand or to make people feel bad. I have every faith that this group is being set up with good intentions and that they’re not meaning to come across as exclusive. I’m writing this because I feel sad. I’m writing this because I’m sick and tired of being made to feel like some kind of revolutionary for thinking that equality means… you know, equality. I’m writing this because I feel rubbish about the fact that something which should be bringing women together could now very well drive a bigger wedge between us and make it less likely we’ll be taken seriously.

Crossing the “too crazy” threshold

I can’t remember how we got talking about the ways in which people participate in anti-stigma campaigns, but it ended up with my friend scornfully remarking, “People are all for anti-stigma and anti-discrimination initiatives until they are personally inconvenienced in some way.”

Is this true? Do we all have a hard limit when it comes to acceptance and tolerance?

I thought about a different conversation I’d been part of recently, concerning someone with complex mental health issues. The woman speaking was very quick to assure me that, no, she didn’t have anything against people with mental health issues, but this particular person was “absolutely off her head”.

Then I started thinking about all the other times people had backed up their gossip with qualifying statements in a bid to convince me that they honestly weren’t saying what I thought they were saying, it was just that this particular person had tipped them over the edge. “I’ve got nothing against fat people but she was ridiculous.” “I’m not homophobic but they were being so obvious.” “I’ve got nothing against people with mental health issues but she was just crazy.”

I wondered if this was anything to do with the nice, clean, sanitised version of mental health problems often served up by the media, where at first we’re sitting with our heads in our hands until we do a bit of colouring and have a nice cup of tea. No mention of how hard, destabilising and unfair the recovery journey actually is with all the sleeplessness, vulnerability and public humiliation thrown in. I’ve cracked up before, thrown things, screamed, harmed myself – how far is it the average person will put up with me before I’m being described as “absolutely off her head”?

No one with mental health issues wants to be the person who has crossed the threshold from acceptable to unacceptable, so we learn to shut up when someone starts to look scared and to push down on acting out in public (at least as much as we can). We learn all of the different ways in which we can show people that we’ve not gone beyond the pale, even when we’re absolutely desperate. We sign online petitions and join anti-stigma campaigns where everyone in the pictures is smiling, looking relaxed. We pretend the problem is being dealt with and we smile and nod politely when someone is lamenting about someone they know who is just beyond help.

I’m sorry that I didn’t challenge the person speaking in this particular conversation. The woman’s violent outbursts were being described as though she was some kind of animal. Maybe I should have said, “What you’re describing is what people with mental health issues go through. It’s ugly and it’s scary, but she’s still worthy of respect.”

Because this is what the truthful experience of mental health difficulties is. It doesn’t happen in the vagueness of “breakdowns”, which suggests a temporary lapse until the nice RAC people pay you a visit and you’re up and running again, good as new. It doesn’t get taken away by “self-care” which can often be a boring, tedious yet necessary process rather than an interesting, life-affirming thing. It doesn’t allow you to “recover” in the sense of a straight line sky-rocketing on a graph. Recovery is dull and frustrating, it can take you back as well as forward and into new and scary territory that you’ve never navigated before. It’s the small moments which tell you it’s actually happening that make it all worthwhile and you often have to hang onto those moments for dear life. Who wouldn’t have the occasional freak-out in a Sainsbury’s or crying fit on the bus? Who wouldn’t occasionally slip into the “absolutely off her head” bracket?

I’ve probably been written off a good few times in my journey through mental ill health. It’s hard enough not to do that to myself! When you hear someone say, “I completely support X, but this person was just taking it too far”, ask them what makes them so sure.

How mental health stigma thrives in the workplace

No one likes being told that they don’t know what they’re talking about, particularly at work. We like to think we’ve got a good handle on things but, like it or not, there will be times when we screw up and harm other people. It’s not always a bad thing – it can be a real learning curve, provided you don’t immediately start blustering about ‘oversensitivity’ (and reaching for that bloody Stephen Fry meme where he talks about how everyone who is ever offended is wrong). The hard part is when people aren’t able to be open about how much they do and don’t know – particularly about something as difficult as mental health issues.

Here’s one thing I feel pretty strongly about in light of the recent comments about workplace stigma: Mental health stigma doesn’t look how people think it looks. From most of the anti-stigma campaigns I’ve seen, you’d think it’s all flaming torches, pitchforks and people being chased out of their workplaces by employers screeching, ‘Get thee gone, you raving lunatic!’ as soon as the word ‘depression’ is mentioned. The truth is most of us won’t ever have a ‘Look! Stigma! There it is!’ moment because it’s just not that obvious it’s happening. Unless you’re the victim, of course.

People who have been the victim of mental health stigma know when it’s happened to them – the trouble is, it’s not all that easy to convey the unfairness and frustration to someone who has never experienced it. It’s not always so clear cut as someone calling you a nutter or spreading rumours behind your back. It can be very subtle, and it’s this sort of subtle stigma which is absolutely deadly. It can destroy relationships, kill careers and keep people unwell for far longer than they need to be. This is what needs to be focused on if we’re going to have a real chance of tackling it for good.

I’d like to talk about this idea of “concern” – that’s “concern” in inverted commas, rather than actual concern which is much more helpful. Here’s what it is:

“Concern” is someone is smiling at you, offering you a cup of tea and asking you to have a friendly chat. And then telling you that you’re fired.

“Concern” is someone talking to someone else about how worried they are about you. And then shutting up and staring as soon as you walk into a room.

“Concern” is someone asking you how you’re doing and do you need any support. And then looking pained and irritated every time you ask them for help.

“Concern” is someone “giving you space during this difficult time”. And then disappearing from your life.

“I just don’t think we can support him at this company.” “She can’t cope – we better take away her responsibilities.” “We all need to pull together as a team – we just can’t give him the help he needs.” “I care about her but she’s bringing the whole team down.” “In an ideal world, we could do more for him but budgets are too tight for that kind of support…” “She’d be better off in a job with less pressure.”

These are all familiar statements to anyone who has faced workplace discrimination based on their mental health. They are the damp which gradually cracks the paint, the weeds pushing up through the concrete. They all sound pretty reasonable – a rushed and harried employer, facing numerous pressures from many different places, just isn’t able to give the ‘right kind of support’. A whole team facing a tight deadline can’t afford to have someone not doing their best. A business facing closure in a flooded market can’t afford to spend time and resources on just one member of staff.

But these kind of statements are corrosive – they continue the cycle of “concern” until people with mental health issues have no confidence in their abilities, are pushed out of their jobs and forced to accept whatever their boss decides to throw at them. I had a boss once who was very happy to tell me how “concerned” she was about me after I told her I had depression. She also made sure to tell everyone else in the company how “concerned” she was and how she was sure I’d be better off in a different job until they all agreed. She was very “concerned” through the whole redundancy process and “concerned” on my last day when she bought me lunch and a pot plant as a goodbye gift. I was unemployed for eight months. I lost my flat and had to skip meals. I never heard from her again.

Am I concerned or “concerned” about someone?

If you’ve worked with someone with mental health issues and recognised yourself saying or doing anything mentioned in this post, here’s a handy checklist you can use then next time you’re dealing with someone with mental health issues:

You’ve seen the person recently and talked to them about the problems they’ve been having – The fact is if you’re truly worried about someone, you will talk to them, not about them.

You’re able to admit that the person will likely have a better idea of what they need than you do – A common misconception of people with mental health issues is that they’re not able to make decisions for themselves. Not so – and you could be seriously hindering their recovery by treating them as though they’re incapacitated.

You want to involve the person in any decisions made about them in their professional or personal life – ‘No decision about me without me’. If you’re planning to reduce someone’s responsibilities or transfer them to a different role, you need to include them in your plans and be prepared to listen to what they want.

You can admit that you’re out of your depth – If you’re not examining your own knowledge about mental health, then it’s likely you’re going to make the wrong call at some point. It’s OK to say that you don’t know very much and need help in deciding what to do.

You don’t have to be a nasty person to perpetuate harmful stereotypes, any more than you have to be a genius to get it right. The important thing is that people are open to learning more and willing to listen to the people who are most in need of support.

Depression is not about ‘gloominess’ – it’s about conflict

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The other day I was reading some interesting NHS guides about mental health when I came across a description of what causes depression which made me cross:

Some people may be more likely to “look on the gloomy side” of life in general, and this may make them more likely to develop a depression.

If there’s anything which really bugs me about what people believe about depression, it’s this idea that depression is a refuge of the chronically miserable, that it only happens to those who can’t ‘look on the bright side’. It doesn’t make any sense to me for various reasons and I don’t think it’s a positive way to help people to get better.

The way I see it, depression happens when two ideas conflict with each other. We all have certain beliefs about ourselves and our lives which are very deeply ingrained. When something happens to challenge those beliefs, we get scared because we’ve discovered that things are not as we thought they were. In the face of challenges to the very centre of who we are, we can feel that we’re falling apart. In order to combat this very frightening prospect, we (unconsciously) tell ourselves stories which remove the conflict from the situation. This bad thing happened because I am a bad person. But of course you have to have some faith in yourself to keep on eating, breathing, walking around and talking to other people, whether you realise it or not. So the good faith is battling with the bad thoughts and this is what leads to depression. Without the conflict between these two states, depression cannot exist. If you were truly resigned to believing you are a bad person, you’d either have no instinct to keep yourself alive (the breathing, eating and walking around) or you’d be in a state where you didn’t mind being seen as ‘bad’. Plenty of people are self-confessed ‘bastards’ and are actually having a pretty good time of it.

Depression doesn’t happen because of pessimism or gloominess. It happens when we’re struggling with ideas that don’t appear to make any sense. Much of this struggle happens away from our everyday thoughts so it’s difficult to get much of a grip on it, but it’s a struggle all the same. 

There are plenty of people who enjoy complaining about things. It doesn’t cause them any distress or upset, they do it because they quite like it. It can help us to feel in control when we’re able to put the world to rights over a pint or have a bit of a moan at a bus stop. People who like to complain a lot might appear to be frustrated or haggard or grumpy but they’re not depressed. It’s entirely possible to be pessimistic often and never suffer depression. Have a read of a comment thread sometime. It’s unlikely that everyone expressing misanthropic or gloomy views is also living with depression.

It can be quite damaging to keep equating pessimism with depression. When you’re depressed, your world view is skewed. You have a feeling that something isn’t right but you can’t quite place it. You feel desperately unhappy and unable to do anything about it. At that time, the last thing you need is people forming opinions about your character rather than what’s happening to you. Depression is not an intrinsic personality trait. It’s grossly unfair to tell someone that they’re depressed because they’re just that sort of person. Be it brain chemistry, upbringing or just bad luck, no one’s 100% clear on what causes the many different experiences of depression. It makes no more sense to say that depression only happens to those who are just prone to misery than it does to believe in astrology. This can happen to anyone.

And maybe that’s what people are afraid of. When people palm off depression as an affliction of those who suffer a perpetual, cartoonish, Eeyore-style gloom, what they’re really saying is, ‘This will never happen to me. Or, if it does, I’ll deal with it much better than those moaning bastards.’ It’s creating a gap to minimise the impact of what other people deal with. If we can kid ourselves that bad things will never happen to us because we’re just not that sort of person, then the world becomes a much safer place. It’s not only depression which inspires people to behave this way. ‘If only they’d been more careful’ is a popular way to deal with stories of everything from car accidents to sexual assault. We don’t like to imagine bad things happening to us, so we pretend they couldn’t. The trouble is we then miss the crucial facts which can help us to create a better state of affairs for those who are affected.

This attitude can also mean that people who have been branded with statements about who they are (‘You are X sort of person’) have little to no motivation to try and be different. What’s the point when you’re essentially battling with your own personality? Might as well get used to it, things will never change and even if they do, they’ll change straight back again. I wish someone had told me sooner that I didn’t have ‘depression’ stamped through my DNA like a word through a stick of rock. It could have saved me a lot of time.

What I’ve learned from being affiliated with various mental health charities over the past few years is that people who live with depression are as diverse in terms of personality as healthy people. It isn’t fair to pigeonhole us as pessimistic or resigned to a lifetime of mope.

Advice for 14-year-old me, living with depression

I pledge my commitment to the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project. I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health. I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.

Living with depression is awful for anyone but when it starts at a young age, you can start feeling like there’s no escape. You feel like you’re not actually unwell, you’re just intrinsically a miserable person (which oddly enough does not actually help you to feel better). In the spirit of breaking the cycle, here are some things I wish someone could have told me when I was a teenager. Maybe there’s still time for them to help someone else.

There are people who would be mortified at the thought of accepting how they are affected by things on an emotional level. They swear blind that they are in total control of their thoughts and feelings at all times and that anyone who isn’t is weak or foolish. These are the people who run the world. They believe that everyone falls into either the ‘sick’ or ‘well’ category and they’re quite skilled at getting people in the ‘sick’ category to believe that this is the way things will always be. If you want to challenge this, be prepared for a fight. But go ahead. They’re not right.

Get some therapy and don’t listen to anyone’s opinion about it. I’m serious – only you will know whether the person you are seeing can help you or whether they’re a quack. Maybe the people around you will understand and maybe they won’t (they probably won’t) but you can decide what’s best for you. There are plenty of therapists who have the skills and training to be able to give you what you need.

There are layers to everything – layers upon layers upon layers. Maybe you’re lucky and you don’t find life too hard or maybe you’re unlucky and you find everything very, very hard. Everything you think and say and do is made up of about a billion different factors and if you’re depressed, it can take some serious unpicking before you know what’s going on. Don’t rush to find answers – sometimes they will come to you out of nowhere. If you push too hard to ‘figure everything out’ too quickly, you’ll make mistakes and feel worse. It’s OK to be confused – the mentally well (much like the physically well) are lucky, not somehow ‘better’ than you.

Help other people by all means but don’t make it your mission to unburden them of their suffering. Everyone’s individual suffering belongs to them and you can’t take it away. At any rate, if you actually could somehow consume and experience someone else’s suffering on their behalf, you’re taking away a valuable opportunity for them to learn to look after themselves. Be there for the people you care about but don’t throw yourself under the bus because it’ll get in the way of your health (incidentally, you will be drawn to all the wrong people due to your need to take bullets on their behalf – it’s best to stamp this out as soon as you can).

Pretty much everyone you come across as a depressed teenager will form some opinion about who or what you are. There are plenty of people who don’t really believe that mental health problems are a thing and even more people who don’t believe teenagers can suffer from them. So, just for your reference, you are not any of the following things – a depressive, a depressed person, clinically depressed, genetically predisposed to depression (I don’t actually know this one for sure but it’s no help to you even if it is true so bin it), determined to stay unhappy, naturally shy, anxious or sensitive, hormonal, gloomy, melodramatic or pessimistic. I’m serious – it doesn’t matter how many times you hear those words, do not listen. Due to a complex combination of inherited traits and circumstances, you became depressed. You will not always be depressed and it is not hard-wired into your DNA.

You will meet many, many people who will tell you they are good listeners, that they can help you, that they want you to tell them all your problems because they will know what to do. Only a fraction of these people will be able to help you on a meaningful level. The vast majority of them will just be trying to deal with their own shit by passing themselves off as amateur therapists. Some of them like thinking you are doing worse than them and they will work hard to keep things that way. Some of them will have the best of intentions but still won’t know shit. Others will be really nasty to you if you don’t immediately accept their advice. Don’t keep these people around and, if you encounter them, remember that they are just pretending to talk to you – they’re only actually talking to themselves and you happen to be there.

(That’s not to say that you can’t choose to be around good people who may not always be able to come to the rescue. I have a friend who doesn’t know much about giving advice on emotional stuff but he’s still fantastic to have around in a crisis because he’s always calm. Just because someone doesn’t always know what to say to you doesn’t mean they can’t help you in another way. You’ll get to know who your go-to people are for various situations.)

Getting better from depression does not mean never being depressed again. You will have periods of time when you will feel awful. You will wonder how you ever thought you were getting better. It will feel like all the time you spent improving was for nothing. That is the nature of depression – it will make you feel like everything is hopeless when it isn’t. It’s not your default setting – you will come out of it again and much more easily than you did before.

Don’t ever, ever, EVER worry about how you are living your life. You’re not missing the boat or the bus or any other kind of form of transport. You’re not ‘wasting time’ being depressed. These are not the best years of your life. Let go of any idea of how things are supposed to be and any year can be the best of your life. There is no right and wrong, there is only a series of moments. Enjoy yourself when you can and be nice to yourself when you can’t.

Do employers know what mental illness stigma actually is?

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In some job interviews, when I’ve chosen to be honest about having depression, I’ve been peppered with questions about how well I cope under pressure. Am I likely to crack in a difficult situation? How well do I deal with confrontation? I must understand, of course, that it’s not that they have a problem with me having depression, it’s that there’s work to be done and they can’t have some babbling loony needing to be looked after while everyone else picks up the slack. We saw a campaign by Mind about stigma in the workplace – very cute! – but this is the real world so it’s time to buck up or get lost.

Again and again, employers show that they still believe that if you have a mental health problem you must be a certain type of person. Either you’re weak or unreliable or oversensitive or perhaps you just give off a vibe. Maybe you might be contagious and infect other staff members – if we have one staff member wanting “special treatment”, they’ll all want it! Or maybe your condition is too complicated to understand and it’d just plain be easier not to bother hiring you.

It doesn’t matter how many articles they’ve read or campaigns they’ve seen trying to explain the problem of stigma. They still think they’re being totally fair and reasonable when they reject a person with depression or anxiety or Bipolar over another candidate who has never suffered with mental health problems. We’re a small company, we don’t have the time or resources to put any support in place, things move very quickly here, we need people who can keep up. They tell themselves fairy stories about how much better off a person with mental health problems will be in a different workplace, one which is more understanding and inclusive, not realising that these places are few and far between and it just isn’t fair to expect people to have to work extra hard to seek them out.

The only difference between a workplace which can accommodate people with mental health problems and one which can’t is the beliefs of the people in charge. If employers believe it’s a waste of time or that people with mental health issues haven’t got anything to offer or that it’ll be too complicated, then they’ll ensure that nothing changes. The really infuriating thing about this is that it really doesn’t take much to make a more inclusive workplace and employers actually don’t have to sacrifice much at all (save for some outdated beliefs).

It does make me angry how many work situations I’ve been in which wouldn’t have been half as difficult if I’d received a little kindness and understanding. It doesn’t take a lot to show a bit of compassion – sometimes it’s literally the time it takes to boil a kettle – but even that is apparently too much for people to handle.

It could be that it’s a problem with workplaces in general. In Mind’s document on HR policies for people with mental health problems, one ‘reasonable adjustment’ suggested for a person with anxiety is that their boss says thank you to them after they complete tasks and ‘Good morning’ to them in the morning! I know from experience how unpleasant it is to be repeatedly ignored or left without acknowledgement for the work I’ve completed. If this is the standard set by the majority of workplaces, it’s no wonder that people with mental health problems are struggling to cope. A healthy person may well find themselves struggling too.

Thanks to the work of charities such as Mind, there are plenty of resources available to workplaces looking to change things for the better. The problem as I see it is getting the work done on the ground because too many people are assuming that it’s not necessary – if they can just avoid taking on anyone with those kind of problems, they won’t have to think about it. This is unacceptable and – particularly in this current competitive job market – more needs to be done.

5 things never to say to an unemployed graduate

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Unemployed graduates are a resilient lot. They can put up with being scapegoated in the media, treated like idiots by job centre staff and staying up until 2am every morning applying for jobs as street fundraisers and asbestos surveyors because they’ve run flat out of ideas. Just don’t ask them to listen to any of the following things…

1. “You interviewed well but others had more experience.”

Said by: Potential employers

For the last time, they know. They’re aware that they haven’t been alive as long as the other people you’ve interviewed. Time travel, gateways to other dimensions or weird Benjamin Button-style ageing disorders aside, there’s really nothing they can do about the fact that the 40-year-old unemployed executive you invited to interview right before them had been on this planet longer. If you have to make the decision based on the length of experience of the candidates, then please lie when you tell the graduates.

What to say instead: “We were looking for someone with a more specific skillset and another candidate was a more direct fit.”

2. “Can’t you just go and live with your parents?”

Said by: Careers advisors, job centre staff members, university support workers, friends of the family

Because Mum and Dad are always absolutely thrilled when their offspring turn up on their doorstep after university, bags at their feet (and even bigger ones under their eyes). I actually had someone say this to me halfway through being let go from a job at a shop and I nearly laughed out loud. It might make you feel better to think that all graduates have got their old rooms still waiting for them, but it’s rarely as simple as that. Relocation, divorce, younger siblings, or the parents just plain not wanting their offspring back can all play a part. Unless you’re willing to pack up your stuff and surprise your own parents/ex-partner/kids by moving in, I wouldn’t suggest it to a graduate.

What to say instead: “It sounds like you’re having a really tough time at the moment. Can your family help you at all?”

3. “It’s no big deal, you’ll find a job in no time.”

Said by: Parents, careers advisors, university support workers, older members of the family

Back in the 1970s, you may well have been able to walk out of one job at lunchtime and land another before dinner but (unless you’ve been living with your head in a bucket for the past five years) you’ll know things aren’t like that anymore. The brightest and best graduates are clubbing each other over the head for the chance of a part-time job in Tesco (that is, if they’re not working for free as an intern to prove they’re worth being paid minimum wage after six months of making coffee for people). The harsh fact is if you’re an unemployed graduate, settle in. It could well be months or even a year before you find work that you actually want.

What to say instead: “You’re doing really well to keep making all of those applications – I know it’s frustrating, but you will find something.”

4. “When I was your age…”

Said by: Potentially anyone over the age of 35

The fact is, you’re not their age anymore. You’re just not. You’ve moved on to a stage of life where (unless you’ve been very unlucky) certain things are not in question. Your professional status, for example. Or where you’ll be living in six months’ time. Whether you’re bemoaning how dreadful everything is for young people at the moment or trying to get a graduate to buck up their ideas because you managed to when you were young, it’s best to just let it go. Graduates don’t want your sympathy – they want your respect. And they need your help.

What to say instead: “I’m sorry things are so hard for you. When you are my age, things will be better.”

5. “I’m having such a nightmare having a new kitchen fitted/renting out my house/planning an unbelievably expensive holiday…”

Said by: Parents, friends of parents, anyone over the age of 35

A silent rule has now passed which decrees that if your problem concerns the fact that you have money, you are not allowed to complain about it. End of. Such conversations should be limited to hushed discussions among people who you know for a fact earn the same amount or more than you. Forbidden topics include: new outfits, holidays, meals out, home improvements, cars and second homes. As soon as you start talking about any of these things, graduates start wanting to throw something heavy at your head. As a guideline, if your conversation is beginning to sound like the Life & Style section of the Guardian, halt it immediately.

What to say instead: “I found a great bargain at a charity shop the other day…”

 

6 things to say when someone is having a panic attack

It’s hard living with irritating mental health issues which can disrupt what is otherwise a fun occasion. It’s also hard having to be witness to these issues when you really don’t have much of a clue what to say or do. Here are my top six things to say to someone who is suffering a panic attack.

“Are you panicking?”

I once took a First Aid course where I was told that the first thing to establish when you think someone might be choking is to ask, “Are you choking?” It might seem a bit of a daft question, given that if the answer is in the affirmative, they won’t be able to answer you. However, it’s good to ascertain what’s going on before you try and do anything – someone could be panicking or they could just be having a wobbly few seconds. Likewise, someone could be choking or they could just be laughing at a joke. It’s best to find out before you start punching them in the spine.

“Come and sit down.”

When someone is panicking, they won’t have much of a clue what’s going on around them. If they look pale or start looking like they’re going to faint, get them to a chair as soon as you can. If possible, make it somewhere quiet where there aren’t many people around but the main aim is to stop them from face-planting into the carpet.

“Sod off.”

This is for the people around the person who is panicking, rather than the person themselves. When someone has a panic attack, chances are around 80% of the people around them will do nothing but stare. This is the same for when someone faints, vomits or generally disrupts the conversation with weird health-related behaviour. I’m not really sure what causes people to stand and gawp at a stranger in the street when they’re clearly in need of assistance but nonetheless this will happen a lot. Unfortunately, it can go a long way to making the person in distress feel worse so it’s good if you can find a way to limit spectators as much as possible.

Don’t actually say “sod off”, of course, just politely ask if people wouldn’t mind backing away or going somewhere else. Unless they reply with “I’m this person’s family member/best friend/partner”, “I’m a doctor” or “Hey, this is my house!”, they should hopefully understand.

A good way of getting rid of people who are flapping around and generally being a bit of a nuisance is to tell them to go and fetch something. Tissues, water, a paper bag, anything. These things might all be useful for the person who is panicking, but the main point is to get other people to go away. It’s humiliating enough suffering a panic attack in public without everyone around you hovering awkwardly.

“Everything’s going to be fine.”

When someone has a panic attack, they can genuinely believe they’re going to die so some gentle reassurance can really help them. While it might be totally obvious to you that the sky is, in fact, still intact, it might not be so obvious to them. Speak quietly and let them know that everything’s all right.

“Breathe slowly.”

The irritating thing about having a panic attack is that your body decides to team up with your mind and goes, “Ha HA, now you’re going to feel even worse!” Hyperventilating limits the amount of oxygen getting to the brain and makes you panic more so if you can try and stop the person from doing this too much, it’ll definitely help. When they look as though they might be able to listen to you, ask them to take one breath in as slowly as they can and then release it in the same way. This is where the paper bag genuinely comes in handy, if you’ve got one. Once they’ve taken a few deep breaths in, they’ll start to feel better even if they don’t look better.

“How’re you doing?”

When they look a bit calmer, ask them how they are feeling. Hopefully, they’ll be able to give you a straight answer but if not, they might need a few minutes more. When someone starts panicking, it’s tempting to want to ask lots of questions but I’d say this would be the most important thing to ask. If you ask them what they want or what you should do to help, they’ll feel bad for not being able to respond properly and it might take them longer to calm down.

One question which comes up a lot is “Do you want me to leave you alone?” If someone is panicking and they don’t want you there, they’ll likely leave the area or tell you straight out to leave them alone. If they don’t do either of these things, there’s no need to worry that your company is making them worse. Being polite is not usually high on the agenda when you can’t breathe, so you can trust the person to be honest (if a bit abrupt).

This is mostly based on my personal experience so over to you – anything you’d suggest for people who are panicking? Has anyone come to your rescue when you’ve been totally out of it? Let me know in the comments.