Monday, 11 June 2018

It's time to start talking...

This is a tough topic to talk about, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't, what we need to do is to work harder to open up about it.  I'm talking about mental health.  This blog post talks about my journey through depression and anxiety, if this raises issues for anyone, please contact one of the numbers at the end of the article and talk to someone who can offer support.

It's men's health week this week, and I thought that this was the perfect time to talk about men's mental health rather than just looking at physical health.  Mental health is just as important as physical health and the two are very often closely interlinked.

Before you go and think that I am just talking out of a hole in my head about this subject let me put this out there - I have suffered from both depression and anxiety in the past, and still struggle with depression at times.  While I never got to the point of having any suicidal thoughts or self-harmed in any way, it was by no means a good place to be in, for me or for anyone around me.  It was hard on my friends, my family, my workmates.  But I got through with some good help from some amazing people.

It all started quite gradually.  I was working in a stressful environment where my clients were suffering from mental health symptoms.  I was overworked (everyone in my team was so it was something we just accepted - we sucked it up and kept working) and stressed because of this.  I got stressful phonecalls from clients, some of a threatening manner, some just angry that I could not help them quickly enough, some just angry because they were angry.  But this all lead to a fear of answering the phone which stayed with me for years after leaving this job to go back to uni to become a personal trainer.

I wouldn't call it a phobia, maybe some would? I ignored phone calls on my mobile from numbers I didn't know, I found it hard to answer the phone at the part time job I had while I studied even though there was an infinitesimally small chance that it would be a former client on the phone (and would they recognise my voice anyway?). I couldn't even make calls to people without a serious amount of forethought going into it and stress for no apparent reason.

Going back a step, my anxiety reached a peak when I had what could best be described as a panic attack at my (stressful) job one day.  I had a wide range of symptoms - sweaty palms, racing heartbeat, fear like you wouldn't believe, I felt like sprinting out of the office!  But luckily this is where one of those awesome people stepped in.  My branch manager was a qualified nurse before she started working at our organisation and she took me aside and gave me some help.  She sent me to my doctor who promptly put some steps in place to help which involved medication as well as seeing a psychologist regularly (we had to see a psychologist as part of our job to talk through stressful events but this became weekly rather than monthly meeting).

My depression happened after leaving this job, although I suspect it was hanging around in the background before I left it was just that the anxiety overrode the depressive symptoms and pushed them to the background.  While I was back at university I started to feel a bit lackluster. I wasn't able to sleep too well, and I went into my shell (even more than my normal introverted self!).  I would feel hopeless and like I was worthless.  I would spend hours on the couch just lying there with my hood over my face wanting to shrink away from the world.  As I said before I was never suicidal or thinking of harming myself but I just wanted the world to disappear.  

This was when my wife (then girlfriend) stepped in and helped me out.  She arranged for me to see her GP (I was bouncing between GPs and hadn't really settled on one). This was a masterstroke on her part as Dr Werry is the best GP I've ever had and I still see him to this day.  He got me some medication to kick my sleep back into a normal rhythm and gave me the name of a psychologist that had seen some other patients of his with good results.  

I arranged to see the psychologist and had regular sessions for about 6 months with a couple of "top up" sessions after that when I needed them.  We mainly used therapy which reframed my thinking and gave me tools that I could use in my day to day life as well as a type of meditation on a daily basis to rework how I thought about things in general.

This combination of medication and therapy worked its magic and I gradually pulled myself out of the dark place I was in and back to a level of normality.  I still get bouts of mild depression but with the tools I learned from my therapist I can handle them much better and I am able to recognise the symptoms before they become major issues and so prevent the downward spiral before it starts.

So that is my story, you might say so what? He got depression/anxiety and worked his way out, big deal! That's a fair statement, but the trouble we have in New Zealand is that many people don't work their way out of their mental health problems.  Men especially in New Zealand commit suicide at a much higher rate than women.  For every woman that commits suicide three men take their own lives.  Please don't get me wrong, any loss of life by suicide is a tragedy.  As men, we especially can find it hard opening up to facing our fears, feelings and frailties, which I think is part of the reason why so many men find it hard to ask for help.  

This is the reason why I decided to tell my story during men's health week.  To let people know that it is OK to ask for help, and to keep asking for help until you find someone who gets it.  That might not be the first person, or even the fifth person, but please keep asking until someone does - heck, message me and I will try and help if that is what it takes.  Just keep asking.

If this blog post raised issues and you feel the need to talk to someone, please utilise the following contact numbers:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kids Line: 0800543 754
Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865

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