DB: ‘No’, ‘Never’, ‘What, you?’, ‘We had no idea?’, ‘Why didn’t you say something?’
Just a few of the responses I received from friends, family and work colleagues when I explained to them why they hadn’t seen or heard from me for a while. I’d been in hospital following a suicide attempt. That admission to hospital was the first time anyone, including the medical profession – and me – knew I was unwell. My marriage had broken up several months previously. I was devastated and finding it hard to cope.
But I chose to tell no one, probably for two reasons: I was ashamed that my wife had left me; and self-stigma – I didn’t want to appear to be struggling emotionally. After all, I had always had good physical and mental health. I was successful – top of the class at veterinary school and after a short spell in practice was now thriving in a demanding role in the pharmaceutical industry. And I had coped with other challenges I had encountered. I was a coper – I believed it and I’m sure most others would have thought it. But those challenges were changeable situations for which addressing the problem itself was sufficient. I had never appreciated the importance of emotion-focused coping strategies to regulate feelings in situations that were unchangeable, like the break-up of a relationship.
I just thought I was stressed – after all, who wouldn’t be in those circumstances? But in fact I was becoming progressively more unwell. What started as worry, early waking and palpitations – which I recognised – led to patterns of thinking of which I did not recognise as being disordered. I felt trapped and worthless – suicide was the only escape. From a medical perspective, my biological, social and psychological risk factors had converged and tipped me into major depression.
That was the first of multiple suicide attempts and several prolonged stays in hospital. Over a three year period I spent twelve months as a psychiatric inpatient. I was treated with antidepressants, antipsychotics, mood stabilisers, talking therapies and electroconvulsive therapy.
But now, thankfully, I am well – and I have been for fourteen years. I still take antidepressants but I suspect I don’t need to – I know the early warning signs and how to act on them to prevent worries potentially escalating into ill health. The medication is my security blanket – I derive comfort from the thought that it may help prevent me ever becoming that ill again.
To what do I attribute my recovery? A mixture of medical treatment, psychological therapies, supportive friends and family, rest and time – they all contributed, probably in similar measure.
What did I learn that I can convey to others?
- Talk to someone. Confide in trusted friends, family or colleagues or a support helpline about your troubles and worries.
- If your distress persists, seek professional help – as with physical illness, the longer you leave it untreated the more severe and potentially more treatment-resistant it becomes.
I firmly believe that if I had confided and sought help early I would not have become unwell.
Don’t worry that disclosure may affect your career – it should not, and your health must come first.
After a phased return to work, my career has continued to progress, I have gained additional professional qualifications and moved into roles of increasing responsibility. Enlightened employers are increasingly recognising the diversity and transferrable skills that people with lived experience of mental health problems can bring to the workplace. My episode of mental ill-health by no means defines me but it’s an important part of me and, although I would not wish it upon anyone, I think it has changed me in a positive way, both personally and professionally.
- No one is immune – it can happen to anyone – including those for whom you would least expect it – including you.
- Complete and sustained recovery is possible. And finally…
- The best prevention? Be connected. Forge and nurture confiding relationships with trusted friends and work colleagues – and make sure you use them, early. It really is ‘good to talk’.
Thank you for your attention.