Rob Pettitt

Senior Lecturer in Small Animal Orthopaedics, University of Liverpool

My life ‘rapidly’ changed a few years ago when I had a serious mental illness. I say rapidly as it resulted from an elongated period of high stress at work and the breakup of my family life. I had always been a ‘get on with it’ person who could always be relied on to make deadlines, organise and generally be someone who you would turn to in a crisis. My previous career in the Royal Navy was very much about putting on a brave face in adversity – ‘it pays to be a winner’ was much quoted during my time.

Trying to balance a clinic with ever-changing staffing levels and my home life, in particular maintaining as normal and happy a life for my children as possible, eventually took its toll on my mental health. One morning I woke early and was physically unable to leave my bed. It was the weirdest and scariest feeling I can ever recall. If anyone had said to me that I would be unable to get out of bed I would have given them a look – how difficult could it be? After phoning in sick, I lay in bed for hours – it was mid-afternoon before I even tried to get a drink.

When I look back now the first thing that set me on the road to recovery was a friend of mine from work who had very similar problems. She rang me as soon as she heard and within ten minutes was at my door. Having someone around at that time was invaluable – she organised a doctor’s appointment, contacted all those who needed to know and basically ensured I was not alone. The GP was very helpful and signed me off work for four weeks initially, and started me on antidepressants. I also sought counselling in the form of a life-coach in order to get the balance back into my life – what I can’t understate is the feeling of being a failure at that time. The counselling allowed me to steadily believe in myself again.

In all I had eight weeks off work – I knew I was getting better as towards the end I was raring to go back. My employers were fully understanding and gave me a phased return with a reduced administration load to allow me focus on fully returning to health. I continued on the antidepressants for a number of months before I gradually phased them out and to date have had no need to restart them.

So what message would I give to others? Work and life are stressful and feeling stress is natural. What is important is to develop strategies in order to cope with these stresses. Communication is essential – talk to friends, relatives and people at work. Mental illness is sadly still taboo in many areas which is wrong – we would not hesitate to tell people if we broke a bone; the same should apply to mental health. What surprised me was the number of people who have been affected and you will always find someone who has been there – support from others is invaluable in those difficult times so you do not have to suffer alone.