Talking About Depression Helps Break The Silence – Here’s My Contribution

When a celebrity commits suicide we have a brief and tentative public discussion about mental health and suicide before it quickly dissipates and we forget about the issue for a time. While we are having that conversation, we remind ourselves and each other again and again that if you are struggling to get through the day that you should reach out to your friends or family and ask for help. Considering the number and impact of celebrities committing suicide and our country’s horrific statistics , it is an increasingly important message. However, as much as we say it is okay to feel down and that you should reach out, it isn’t always that easy. It’s not even easy to admit that you have depression.

Trust me, I know.

Until now I have told only a handful of people, but I feel like I need to do my part to help break the taboo and silence we seem to have around mental health. I want to talk about my experience with depression not  because I think I am special or that I have particularly amazing insights or experiences that will help others overcome their problems, but because hopefully it helps at least one person realise that they are not alone in their struggles. I am not after pity or attention because I am okay now, and if I wasn’t alright I doubt I would be so open. More importantly, I hope that if I am willing to admit to having these feelings and can post it online for anyone to read, someone who has suffered in silence might feel that by comparison, opening up to a couple of close people isn’t so bad.

Dealing With The Black Dog

For years I struggled with depression without really knowing what it was. I stayed up late most nights feeling miserable and I would either break down and cry or I  just lay there running circles in my mind, overthinking my personal situation and criticizing myself. In my mind, I was dim, unattractive and socially awkward compared to everyone around me. Despite this, I was still a fairly social person and in those moments spent in the company of others, I was happy and content. The problem was that as soon as I was left with my own thoughts too long,  the wallowing and self-pity would kick in. I often thought about self-harm and all those dark things, but fortunately they remained thoughts and nothing more. I would often became withdrawn, irrational, and a touch aggressive (emotionally, not physically) although that was normally only inflicted on my partners. Alcohol made everything worse, and more than once I lost the plot during a night on booze.

While it is hard to explain why I felt these things, I know that some of that was down to my insecurity and worrying about how others perceived me. As easy as it is to say “Who cares what other people think!”, it isn’t that simple. In a time where social media plays such a massive role in our lives, it’s hard not to compare yourself to the standards set by others. We see the best parts of other people’s lives on our news feeds and make the assumption, whether consciously or not, that their lives are always like that. Similarly, we are bombarded by ads that promote preconceived standards of beauty and attractiveness, and when we don’t meet those standards, our self-esteem naturally takes a hit. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake those insecurities because I was constantly comparing myself to people around me and subsequently finding aspects of my personality or appearance to dislike, despite my best efforts to think positively about myself.

I can explain all this with the benefit of hindsight, but at the time I didn’t understand why I felt this way. At almost no point did I think about talking to anyone because if I couldn’t understand what was going on inside my head, how could they? From my point of view everyone was just so confident, they had their lives sorted and knew what they wanted to do, and I was just a mopey kid pretending to be an adult. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life other than wanting to help others, and I wasn’t sure how to go about doing that. The lack of direction made me doubt everything I did and see those actions as pointless. I often felt like I was just going through the motions day to day. I felt lost.

To make things worse, I couldn’t shake the belief that I had no legitimate reason to feel this way. See, everyone has their own reasons for feeling depressed and they vary. Some people have traumatic experiences that affect their confidence and sense of self-worth, while others experience financial and material hardship that takes an understandable toll on their mental health. Whether is because of failed relationships, losing loved ones and struggling with one’s identity, there are a range of factors that contribute to depression. For me personally, most of these didn’t apply.

I’ve mentioned before that I was raised well. I never went hungry, was never mistreated, I was loved and learned from my parents how to be a good person, which I think I have done a reasonable job of so far. We weren’t poor, but we also weren’t flush with cash. I had everything I needed. Maybe a six-pack or more confidence would have made life a bit more enjoyable but I can’t complain. When I thought about the life I had lived, I felt I had no good reason to feel depressed, which made things even more depressing.

This made me feel helpless and feeling helpless made me feel weak. As we often mention when we discuss mental health and suicide, it is not weakness to ask for help. People like myself don’t reach out because we have this idea that showing emotions is weakness and if we appear vulnerable, people will think less of us. We worry what they might say to others behind our backs, maybe laugh at how weak we are or that they will give us a hard time for feeling down. I felt so weak I resisted the idea that I was even experiencing depression and almost convinced myself that I was just an impostor who was passing their melancholy feelings off as depression. Eventually I did go get treatment, but I threw the pills away before long because I thought I didn’t need them and they weren’t doing anything anyway. To this day, I’m not sure they ever did.

It Gets Better

I have written this in the past tense because much of this no longer applies. As I said earlier, I got better over time. Perhaps the biggest source of my self-loathing was the disconnect between my values and actions. Like so many others who study Arts subjects, I went in wanting to change the world. The more I learned about the social and environmental problems in the world, the more resolved I became to help solve them. This led me down a path many others have walked down before me, where a greater understanding of the global economy, politics and human nature took me from youthful optimism to cynical pessimism, and the problems became so large and the solutions so much more unlikely that there seemed no point to even try make a difference.

I had an idea of the person I wanted to be and I constantly failed to live up to those standards which made me even more disappointed in myself and perpetuated the whole depressing cycle. Things only started to change when I got so sick of being miserable and I seriously re-evaluated what I was doing with my life and questioned how much longer could I continue to wallow in self-pity. I realised that I needed to start living up to the values I believed but rarely lived up to and resolved to do something that in any way, shape or form made the world a better place. I accepted that I may not find it straight away, but if I am moving in the right direction and I am happy with what I am doing then that is enough. This is ultimately what led me to teaching and now, years later, things are much better and I am happier. Having purpose and direction helped me put my insecurities in perspective and while they still affect me a bit now, I don’t get caught up in vicious cycles of overthinking like I used to.

With this and the support of an understanding partner, I managed to overcome many of these feelings, but that doesn’t mean the dark thoughts have gone away completely. Some days I will wake up feeling crap about myself and just feeling downright miserable.  And you know what? That is okay. I’ve come to accept that feeling this way from time to time is alright as long as I don’t dwell on things for too long. Those feelings of hopelessness and despair are always there, lurking just out of sight, but if managed right they don’t have to bother me too long. For a while I had convinced myself that I had beaten it, like it was the flu, and that  it no longer plagued me. Now I know it’s not something that goes away with the snap of the fingers, but it does get better. For me, accepting that it is an ongoing process and that bad days are a part of that process helps me get by.

What also helps me cope is the knowledge that, contrary to what some would have us believe, the causes of depression are not just internal. We live in a society where we are convinced to compete with each other for jobs and for money, and in order to make ends meet, we are working longer hours for stagnant pay while our bosses and celebrities become excessively rich. Meanwhile, we are struggling to make ends meet, adding stress and uncertainty to our lives.  We are materialistic and often place our sense of self-worth in purchased goods that serve as symbols of social status that we use to compare ourselves to others. When we don’t behave or look a certain way, we are ridiculed and made to feel isolated. I could go on, and indeed researchers have linked depression to inequality and capitalism which shows that aspects of the structure of society is exacerbating our mental health problems, but realising that many insecurities are manufactured aren’t just in my head is reassuring.

You Are Not Alone

Remember that this is just my experience. I haven’t reached the lows that other people have felt nor such dire circumstances that led them there, but that shouldn’t diminish my experience. Mental illness is still mental illness, and while some may have it worse than others, comparing experiences accomplishes nothing. Everyone suffering needs love and support from those around them. We all need to start caring for each other and thinking, before we say something that might cause pain, what struggles a person is going through. I would disappoint people if I didn’t get political for at least a moment to say that the government should be funding the crap out of mental health services.

This shouldn’t be something we only do when a celebrity commits suicide. This should be normal. We need to get into the habit of being open with how we feel, not necessarily online for the world to see and not for the purpose of garnering sympathy, but because we should be able to get help from those around us. To reiterate what I said earlier, if you are struggling, reach out to someone you trust. I can’t say to anyone how they might overcome their struggles because we are all unique, but they’re probably not going to be conquered if they remain a secret. I can say that opening yourself up is not weakness but strength, and I know this because writing this up and sharing it is one of the hardest things I’ve done in a long time. 

 

Some Thoughts on Empathy and Combating Racism

I started writing this as a draft script for a video on New Zealand history, with the intention of creating a visually compelling and informative clip that might debunk some of the myths about New Zealand and Maori history. You know the sort of tired ideas I am talking about, beliefs like all Maori willingly signed away their rights and land or that they are ungrateful, greedy, or have special privileges, uninformed opinions regurgitated by the likes of Hobson’s Pledge. Our goal was to address in some small way our collective failure to understand history that is ultimately responsible for the ignorance we see too often today. But the more I looked into it, the more I realised, or remembered, that facts do little to change people’s minds, at least the more extreme cases. Too often we are ruled by how we feel and what we believe, and it is the myths that remain in people’s minds rather than the facts.

Of all the myths that persist, perhaps the most damaging is the idea that everybody has the same opportunities in this country. We hear it mainly from people who currently occupy the middle or upper classes rather than from lower class people. The belief that we are all equal is accompanied by the assumption that if you are struggling on the benefit, then it is because you are lazy and need to work harder. Stop having so many kids, some will say. Stop having so many kids or wasting your money on the pokies, other sages advise. Despite this wisdom, rarely do they ask why people in such desperate situations do things that clearly are not in their best interest. Clearly, some people lack the ability to empathise with others, if they even know what empathy is.

Empathy isn’t simply putting yourself in someone’s shoes and saying “If I were in this situation I would do this or that…”. That isn’t removing your biases or prejudices. That doesn’t even acknowledge that they are a different person to you with their own unique thoughts and values. All you are doing is forcing your own opinions and perspectives on them and basically demanding that they be just like you. No, empathy is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and genuinely trying to understand them. What experiences has this person had, or what sort of life have they led that has made them the person they are today? Why do they think the way they do, and how does that make them act? If you really want to know what makes someone tick, these are the sort of questions you need to ask. We are all shaped by the lessons we learn growing up, from our family, friends and school. We are the products of our environments, so what may seem like a logical decision to one person makes no sense to another.

Those who would say hurtful things about others should certainly bear this in mind, but those of us who (justifiably) call such people out for their bigotry and racism should also bear it in mind. It is easy to resort to anger when you see someone saying some racist crap. When I see someone say something like “If it wasn’t for Europeans you Maoris would still be wearing flax skirts killing each other” (someone told me that once), of course I am going to get pissed off. Feeling angry in a situation like that is only natural and shows your moral compass is correctly aligned, but when you step back and think about it, lashing out at them in anger isn’t productive.

Taking a step back requires you think about why someone thinks it is appropriate to say something so uninformed. Perhaps they grew up in a home full of people that thought this way. It could be they learnt nothing about New Zealand history at school and took what they knew from people around them who also knew nothing. Maybe they have never really gotten to know many Maori people and therefore never had to give much thought to the concerns of Maori in general. It could be a combination of these or something else, but like any other person in the world, their values and beliefs are shaped by their experiences and those around them.

Considering they haven’t been exposed to experiences that might teach them the same compassion or empathy that we might possess, is it really fair to attack them for it? I know it may seem absurd, excusing people who are often the walking definition of ‘privilege’ for racist speech or actions, but if they really don’t know any better, is it really so different from yelling at a child for not knowing math?

The privileged live in a bubble. Many have not known hardship because of their social status and the social status of those before them, granting them opportunities that are simply unattainable by others. To them, that privilege is invisible and a part of their life, making it difficult for them to understand why others struggle. Because of this they assume others simply do not work hard or bring misfortune on themselves. We might know better, but remember that although they are adults  they are so stuck in backwards ways of thinking that calling them racist will accomplish nothing other than make them angry and reduce what might be meaningful dialogue to a shit-throwing contest.

While such people may be privileged in the material sense, they are not worthy of our anger or envy. Instead, we should pity them. They might not have experienced hunger or discrimination, but they were also not taught what it means to care for people who are different to themselves, from different cultures or walks of life. They may think of themselves as compassionate or empathetic, but clearly that only applies to certain people in their lives and excludes others. That is their loss. There is beauty in each of the different cultures and worldviews that people in this country have to share, but appreciating them and their people only comes through understanding. Those who would make generalisations about others, try to exclude them or diminish their culture are missing a vital part of what it is to be human in our modern global society.

It seems counterintuitive that the people we would normally call disempowered are the ones with the power to change things, but I think it’s true. People who have lived experience with discrimination have the power to show others a better way of treating each other, and in this sense are privileged. It is our role to help the ignorant overcome their fear of other people and show them some compassion for their fellow man and woman, and it by listening to their concerns and then talking.

There have been articles posted recently saying old white men need to shut up. This kind of nonsense does more harm than good. It assumes based on age and skin colour that they have all experienced privilege and power in their lives. Blaming all men for being overpowering or sexually abusive as some ‘feminists’ (not actual feminists) do assumes men have never been in similar positions. Whether we call ourselves liberal or conservative, left-wing or right-wing, we make some awful generalisations about others that risk making enemies of those who might have supported our cause, but because we insulted and made generalisations about them, now no longer will. I say this because the tactics of some animal rights and ‘feminist’ activists have had this effect on me, making me resent them rather than wanting to listen to what they have to say. Attacking me for eating meat or simply being a man assumes that I am not a good person or that I don’t care about those issues, and their cause loses my support because they pissed me off.

Consider some of the stereotypes we make about old, white and wealthy mean. The general assumption is that they must be conservative, don’t care too much about the environment and probably are a little bit racist. No one would say that about David Attenborough, but they would about Trump. They belong to the same demographic yet represent vastly different ideas and values. Some say white men have held all the power for too long, yet many old white men throughout history have also lived in poverty and without power. On the other hand, some of those old white men who hold positions of power and influence have progressive ideas and are trying to make the world a better place for everyone. Within any demographic there is a spectrum of beliefs and experiences, and while it is true that certain demographics as whole have worse experiences than others, generalising a group of people dismisses both the struggles and contributions of individuals.

Not everyone has the patience to deal with recalcitrant people and that is fair enough. There is also only so long you can try understand someone before you accept they may be a lost cause, but it is important that we try, and equally important that we move away from painting everyone with the same brush. If we are to change people’s minds, we need to understand who they are, what drives them and treat them like we would treat anyone else.