Trinity researchers recently published a study which proposed that young people find it difficult to identify signs of depression or suicidal thoughts amongst their peers. Psychologists working out of the School of Psychology and Children’s Research Centre say that their findings show that even though young people show great concern for friends going through a difficult time, the good they can do themselves is limited. For all the well-meaning intent and important work of campaigns like ‘please talk’, it seems that when we do start talking to our friends about our mental health, they might be as far as we get. Depression is an ailment which for many people warrants some form of professional treatment and clearly more work is needed to educate young people on the signs that point to a peer possessing that ailment.
I would consider myself to be a compassionate person, someone who has time to listen to friends’ worries and give them advice to the best of my ability. Among other things I’ve helped friends find cost effective counselling services, gone with them to doctors’ appointments and spent an hour listening to a friend’s anguish while walking around Front Square on a cold November evening. This is all to say I think that if I was part of the research group, I would have been among the 50% who identified depression and the 10% who recognised suicidal thoughts among their peers.
How then do we recognise depression or suicidal thoughts we may be having ourselves? It’s a question I’ve been seeking an answer to for a while and one that to me resonates personally as someone who has gone through life experiencing bouts of depression, and at those lowest points suicidal thoughts. On a few occasions before coming to college I’d been in counselling and behavioural therapy. Last year I reported on the attitudes encountered by students in different universities from campus doctors when they sought help for their mental health. I listened to and spoke with people in a multitude of situations, who had experienced a range of mental health problems. The whole time I was working on this story, I was experiencing a debilitating resurgence of depression that slowly chipped away at things that made me happy until all the colour flaked off.
I told myself I couldn’t be depressed ‘again’ because when I was depressed ‘before’, I had cried and gone to the doctor and received counselling. I didn’t feel a desire go to the doctor now—or even cry all that often—so surely I couldn’t be depressed. I was involved in two student publications, I spent hours in an office every few weekends working into the morning to get them finished. Could depressed people do that? When I returned to College after Christmas, things started to disintegrate further and I could feel myself losing control over aspects of my life, though I still refused to believe anything was wrong with my mental health. A new feeling began to emerge, one of paralysing anxiety about things that were completely not worth worrying over or about things that were under my control.
I found myself unable to email my dissertation supervisor to arrange a meeting, though we’d had many before Christmas. I told myself that she’d say I hadn’t done enough work, so I waited longer before setting up a date. Weeks went by and I hit a stalling point in my work. I told myself I couldn’t ask her for help, because it had been so long since we met and she would expect me to have a lot of work done, so I’d wait till I overcame my stumbling block and meet up then. This continued, and even though I wanted to meet my supervisor, we never spoke once about my dissertation either in person or over email throughout the whole of that semester.
In another instance, I was physically moved to vomiting after being told that in genuinely trying to help someone, I had inadvertently done something which would actually have been negative for them. In my head I ran through a list of situations that would play out, all of which with hindsight were completely far-fetched but at the time seemed prophetic. My heartbeat hammered harder, I felt chilled sweat dripping down my back and my head got lighter and lighter until I dashed to the bathroom for relief. Afterwards I did think it a very unusual incident, but not one that warranted further attention.
I finally broke down during the week of my exams, coming home from my first one and falling apart in front of my parents, confessing something that seemed like a shameful secret but which mostly hurt me because of how long I had denied it to myself, or even purposely ignored it. I managed to see that week out and finish my degree, something which at one point I seriously doubted I would do. But I still didn’t seek any help. Things got in the way, or told me that they were the reason I was feeling down. The stress leading up to the marriage referendum, the feeling of listlessness after finishing four years of college and having no use for myself, the light bulb in my room that needed fixing. It was only a few weeks ago, with the realisation that I had been getting worse throughout the summer, that I realised something needed to be done. I went to a doctor who diagnosed me with a form of endogenous depression and tomorrow I start my second week of medication.
There was a time where I was able to self-counsel and get from negative thoughts to positive ones. For me, starting treatment is about putting me back on a level playing field with others, so I can then be receptive and insightful about my own feelings towards myself. I never thought that I needed the services offered by college, and even if I did think I needed them I doubt I would have gone for them. We need to learn to differentiate normal worries from something that goes deeper, passing fears from all consuming dread. There was no aha moment which led me to seek help—if anything I knew something was wrong by how little I cared for any recovery—but I hope that my experience can help others recognise how long it can take for someone to look for assistance. And when that assistance is sought, it should not be granted in a judgemental, threatening or disbelieving manner. We spend so much time telling ourselves that our problems are not real, we don’t need anyone closing a door on us once we’ve decided to step in from the cold.