Why Do I Have Depression? Making My Experiences Worthwhile

I’ve talked about depression a lot on my blog recently. I’ve been very open about my own experiences, but I’m acutely aware that my experiences are individual to me, and on the whole, we don’t completely understand why people experience depression, why they experience it in certain ways, or how we should treat it best. Sometimes it can be really frustrating to live with depression; previously I’ve found myself feeling a bit jealous of people that don’t have this heavy blanket to carry round with them – why do I have these experiences? Why don’t others? If I have kids will they have these experiences too?

Instead of being jealous or frustrated, in recent months I’ve mad a conscious effort to make my own experiences of depression feel worthwhile. Whether that’s been blogging about it, providing online support to people that I’ve never met, talking to people in real life.. it’s been a weirdly nice way to ensure that something good comes out of such difficult experiences.

Now, I’ve decided to take part in a research study.

My entire PhD looked at participant recruitment in research (specifically, clinical trials), so I know that recruitment is hard. That said, I’m not taking part because I don’t want the researchers running the study to stress-cry more than absolutely necessary. I’m taking part in a research study about depression because it makes me feel like I’m contributing to solving the problem. If I have to live with depression, then I may as well use my experiences to help researchers understand it more thoroughly. Maybe my contribution to research will help answer why I have these experiences, why others don’t, and whether any potential children of mine would be at risk of these experiences as well.

So, what’s the study?

Recently, researchers at King’s College London launched the largest ever single study of depression and anxiety. They aim to recruit at least 40,000 people living in the UK that have experienced depression or anxiety at some point in their life. This study, the Genetic Links to Anxiety and Depression (GLAD) study aims to ‘make important strides towards better understanding of these disorders and improving the lives of future patients‘.

If you live in the UK and have experience of depression or anxiety, I would really recommend that you watch the video below, and read on to find out more information about what taking part in the GLAD study involves.

It’s really important that we try to get as many people from as many different backgrounds to take part. When lots of similar people (i.e. people of one ethnicity, people of a limited age group, people of the same gender etc) take part in research, the results are at serious risk of bias – meaning that the results would only be applicable to the group of people that took part in the study. The GLAD study team has explicitly said that they want to recruit from diverse groups that represent the entire UK population, and they are actively working to address the complex barriers that exist for some potential participants by working with mental health organisations that have links to various different communities around the UK.
Clearly, it’s important that everyone with experience of depression or anxiety takes part in this study, but if you do know of any mental health organisations, or community groups that you feel may be difficult to connect with via the methods that the team are already using, please do forward them this blog post or direct them to the study website (www.gladstudy.org.uk) for more information.

How you can take part in the GLAD Study

Step 1: If you have personal experience of depression or anxiety, and live in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, head to www.gladstudy.org.uk. Scroll to the bottom of that page and enter your details to sign up.

Step 2: Read the information sheet carefully to ensure that you understand what the study entails, and what will be expected of you if you take part.

Step 3: Go through the consent process, this is a series of 15 yes/no questions, and you’re also asked for your address and NHS number (I didn’t know my NHS number and was still able to go ahead and complete it – I’ll go back and complete my NHS number when I have it later this week).

Step 4: Complete the GLAD study survey. This is quite a long process, but it’s where the bulk of the effort comes in terms of research participation – after this involvement is pretty minimal (but still important) going forward. I think it took me about 30 minutes or so to complete the survey. The survey is split into various categories, the sensitive ones also include an option to skip if you don’t feel comfortable answering them, which I thought was a good way to ensure that the research doesn’t trigger anyone with particular life experiences.

Step 5: A GLAD study saliva kit was sent to me within just a few days of completing my address details in step 3. Open this up and make sure that you have everything listed in this ‘what is in my saliva kit?’ section of the leaflet enclosed.

Step 4: Follow the instructions to fill the saliva sample tube – note, make sure to brush your teeth 30 minutes before giving you sample, and don’t eat or drink anything in that time. You need to fill the tube to the 4ml line, and there will already be 2ml of a DNA stabiliser in there. This may take a few goes; 2ml of saliva is a lot more than I expected, it took me 5 goes to get enough! Pop the lid firmly back on the tube and shake it up.

Step 5: Put everything in the freepost envelope that comes in the kit, and pop it in the post box.

That’s it!

When the study team receive your sample, they will extract DNA from your sample. Samples will then be stored without any of your personal details; if you are from England and Northern Ireland, your sample will be stored at the NationalBiosample Centre (NBC) in Milton Keynes, if you are from Northern Ireland, some of your sample will also be stored in secure facilities at Ulster University in Coleraine, if you are from Scotland, your sample will be stored at NBC and some will also be stored at the Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Facility at the University of Edinburgh, if you are from Wales, your sample will be stored at NBC and some will also be stored at National Centre for Mental Health/MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomicsat Cardiff University.


This post is in no way sponsored or affiliated with the GLAD study. I enrolled in the study as a participant following the steps described above after seeing a post about the study on Twitter. I wrote this post as I want to highlight how quick and simple study participation can be, in an effort to encourage people with experiences of depression or anxiety to take part themselves.
For more information please visit www.gladstudy.org.uk.

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Making Sure Depression Doesn’t Get in the Way of Life

It’s been over a week since I last posted. That’s partly because I wanted to take some time to step back and intentionally switch off from the extra things I do outside work (i.e. blogging), but also because I wasn’t sure how to follow up a post where I talked about depression in such a direct way. The last week has been better, I’ve spent lots of time with my boyfriend and we’ve helped each other through the emotional rollercoaster of grief. Before I start posting about public engagement, Fellowship adventures, and clinical trials, I wanted to acknowledge how I deal with depression on a daily basis, and how I make sure it doesn’t stop me from enjoying life.

Image credit: Ruby

I’m lucky that I’ve got to this point; as recent events have taught me, many don’t, but if you do live with depression these points might be good starting points to make sure you don’t get overwhelmed by the low points.

Finding joy in the little things

Every night since our friend died, my boyfriend and I have told each other two things that we’ve enjoyed that day. That first night was difficult, and I ended up saying something like ‘I had a really good cup of tea’ and ‘I listed to some fun music when I was driving home’, which felt pathetic and stupid because after those two good things we literally found our friend dead. That said, doing that made sure that I had reminded myself that the day wasn’t completely horrendous, even if the previous few hours had been. Now we do this every night before we go to sleep, and it reminds us that even though some days are thoroughly crap, there’s always something good in them. Some days it’s hard to limit those things to two, and those are extra good days, but on the days when it’s difficult to find good points in the day two is enough to remind you the life is actually alright most of the time.

Talking to someone impartial

A few weeks ago, I started going to see a therapist. I’ve been to a therapist once before and I didn’t click with her at all – the advice she was giving me didn’t sound constructive or like it would actually result in anything good, so I stopped going. I tried therapy through the NHS but had to wait for 18 months, and then again I didn’t click with the therapist. Since then I’ve been hesitant about going back because I wasn’t sure how to find someone I clicked with, and honestly, because it’s expensive. At upwards of £40 per session, as a PhD student I wasn’t keen on the trial and error approach to finding a therapist that I liked. Anyway, now I’m in a position to pay for therapy, I went online and did some research on therapists local to me. I visited each of their websites, read their ‘About Me’ sections, found out what areas of therapy they specialised in, and then emailed one. I told myself I’d do one session, and then reassess and figure out if they were the right fit – so I didn’t go in expecting to have found ‘the one’. Luckily, I felt like she was a very good fit, she didn’t recoil when I swore (I’m a pretty sweary person), laughed when I laughed, and seemed very in tune with my body language etc, noticing things that I hadn’t even realised I did. I’ve only been to 2 sessions so far, but it’s been really helpful. Even just two weeks in I’m finding myself stepping back and being able to reflect on things so that I can figure out how I can manage them.

Image credit: Ruby

10/10 would recommend speaking to someone that is completely impartial – the guilt I sometimes have when talking about heavy stuff with friends or family isn’t there, and it’s nice to be able to talk about my thoughts in a completely judgement free environment.

Letting myself be sad

Some days, it’s not possible to pick myself up and keep going. Sometimes, I wake up and know that I’m going to have a low day, and that’s totally ok. It’s fine to take some time out, but the last few times I’ve felt like that instead of laying in bed/migrating to the sofa at some point in the afternoon, I’ve really tried to do just one thing. I usually target one thing on my to do list and do that. That one thing might take me longer than usual, but it’s one more thing than I would have done otherwise. Usually, after doing one thing, I feel a bit better and try to tackle another, and that makes sure that I’m still feeling productive even though I might do doing the things whilst sat in my pyjamas.

Image credit: Ruby

Sources of Support for Those That Are Struggling

This is a weird blog post to write, but I didn’t want the week that I’ve just had to go by without saying anything – it’s too important.

My first day at my new job as Research Fellow was supposed to be Monday 4th March, and I’d planned for this week to be about getting stuck into work, writing lots and getting a feel for the new project that I’ll be working on for the next 2 years. Instead, on Sunday evening my partner and I went to our friend’s flat because we were worried about him. He hadn’t been answering text messages, he wasn’t answering the door to his flat, his phone was going straight to voicemail, and no one had heard anything from him since the early hours of Saturday morning. We got the spare key to his flat from another friend, and let ourselves in. We found him dead.

This week has been one of the most surreal weeks of my life. It still doesn’t feel real, and I’m not sure that it ever will.
The point of me writing this blog post isn’t for sympathy, or messages of support – we’ve had lots of them already, and everyone around us has been understanding, supportive and kind. I feel lucky that we have people around us that we’ve been able to call ‘just because’. Some people don’t have that, or don’t feel that they have that, so I wanted to highlight sources of support that are available to people that need it.

I’m based in the UK so these are UK-centric, but I will try to include links to international organisations too – if you know of any further sources of support, please leave details in the comments below and I will add them into the list below.

Helplines

Mind

Infoline

The Mind team provides information on a range of topics including:

  • types of mental health problems
  • where to get help
  • medication and alternative treatments
  • advocacy.

They will look for details of help and support in your own area (UK).
Lines are open 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday (except for bank holidays).
0300 123 3393
info@mind.org.uk
Text: 86463

Legal line

The Mind legal team provide legal information and general advice on mental health related law covering:

  • mental health
  • mental capacity
  • community care
  • human rights and discrimination/equality related to mental health issues.

Lines are open 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday (except for bank holidays).
0300 466 6463
legal@mind.org.uk

Blue Light Infoline

Mind’s Blue Light Infoline is just for emergency service staff, volunteers and their families.
The team provides information on a range of topics including:

  • staying mentally healthy for work
  • types of mental health problem
  • how and where to get help
  • medication and alternative treatments
  • advocacy
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • existing emergency service support
  • mental health and the law.

Find out more about the Blue Light Infoline.
Lines are open 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday (except for bank holidays).
0300 303 5999 (local rates)
bluelightinfo@mind.org.uk
Text: 84999

If you’d rather not speak to someone on the telephone, Mind also offer a web chat service, there is more information here.

Samaritans

Samaritans are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
You can call them on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org

Websites

The Mental Health Foundation
Mental Health UK
Mental Health Matters
Mind (charity)
Types of mental health problems
Supporting someone with mental health issues
How to access mental health services

Starting points for international organisations/sources of support

Canada
USA
Australia

Also, another point – the language that we use around mental health and suicide is important. Research has shown that using stigmatising language can deter people from seeking the help that they need.

“Suicide is no longer a crime, and so we should stop saying that people commit suicide. We now live in a world where we seek to understand people who experience suicidal thoughts, behaviours and attempts, and then to treat them with compassion rather than condemn them. Part of this is to use appropriate, non-stigmatising terminology when referring to suicide.”
– Susan Beaton, Suicide Prevention Specialist

With this in mind, Samaritans recommends:

Phrases to use:

  • A suicide
  • Take one’s own life
  • Person at risk of suicide
  • Die by/death by suicide
  • Suicide attempt
  • A completed suicide

Phrases to avoid:

  • Commit suicide
  • Cry for help
  • A ‘successful’ or ‘unsuccessful’
  • Suicide victim
  • Suicide ‘epidemic’, ‘craze’or ‘hot spot’
  • Suicide-prone
  • Suicide ‘tourist’

Depression Doesn’t Just Go Away When You Go on an Adventure

This is a weird post to write, but I think it’s important so I’m sitting down to write it in the hope that it helps someone else.

I’ve lived with depression for a few years now. In reality it’s probably been more than a few years, but a few years ago a Doctor told me that I had depression, so that’s where the ‘official’ timeline started. I’ve spoken about having depression before, and I genuinely thought that I was ok with things, I thought that I understood my depression; how to manage it, how to spot the signs that I wasn’t doing too well and needed a break, etc.

Now, I’m in the USA on the trip of a lifetime, and it turns out I wasn’t actually ‘ok’ with the whole depression thing at all. The last few weeks have been incredible, mind-alteringly, life changingly brilliant, and I’ve felt like someone without depression. Even when I got snotty-gunky-gross sick, I was still pretty happy, just miffed that I was in New York being snotty-gunky-gross sick. There was a little part of me that thought, ‘Oh my God, maybe it wasn’t depression at all! It was stress, burnout, a series of unfortunate events that were making me sad – I probably don’t have this weird lifelong mental health thing at all, how brilliant!‘ That little part grew without me even realising it, until I woke up earlier this week with the familiar feeling of numbness. That heavy blanket feeling that makes getting out of bed too difficult.

Unsurprisingly to just about everyone else in the world, it turns out that just because you go on an adventure to explore a subject you’re passionate about, depression doesn’t just go away. Even when you’re not stressed, worried or under pressure, that whole depression thing – it’s still a thing. That realisation surprised me.

I’m aware this sounds really naive, but I think it’s important to talk about. The issue of burnout and stress in relation to the PhD process is talked about so much, but it’s not always stress that makes life difficult for people. Some of us are living with the knowledge that at some point we’ll be right in the middle of a brilliant week, and the heavy blanket feeling will return with little or no warning.

All of that said, I’m still feeling pretty lucky to be lugging my heavy blanket around Washington DC rather than Aberdeen. Travelling has always been something I’ve enjoyed, and so I’m going to spend my weekend exploring new places around DC. That is potentially the most privileged form of self-care I’ve ever planned, but I’m here and me and my heavy blanket are determined to make the most of it, gently.

Science On A Postcard X PhDepression

Another post that’s late in the day for #Blogtober.. today was just a bit hectic and I feel like I’ve been constantly busy since I left my flat at 7.15am. It’s now 10pm and I’ve just finished putting new listings in the Science On A Postcard Etsy shop, so I figured I’d give them their own little blog post.

A few months ago Susanna Harris from PhDepression messaged the Science On A Postcard account on Instagram to talk to me about a potential collaboration. I’ve spoken a lot before about my own struggles with mental health, and I think it was pretty clear to Susanna that I thought that what she was doing with PhDepression was fantastic.

From the PhDepression website:

The PhDepression LLC founder Susanna Harris explains her passion for this project: “When the Nature Biotech article showed nearly 40% of graduate students struggle with anxiety or depression, I felt a sense of belonging. A year before, I was in a deep depression, and this paper made me feel less alone. But I couldn’t name 5, let alone 50, students in my cohort that might be struggling. There was a disparity between the public faces in our universities and the underlying stories.

The PhDepression LLC aims to increase visibility of those who have struggled with mental health issues, from students to postdocs, future PhDs to those who have long-since graduated. Many of us deal with these problems, and we must support our community by breaking the stigma around mental illness. Academia would be a stronger, kinder place if we could talk about these things openly and get the help we need”.

So, what is this wonderous collaborative product that we came up with? Well.. it’s 2 products actually. One is a pin badge, and the other is a set of 5 notecards; all fit the theme of mental health and self care.

‘Self Care Is Not Selfish’ enamel pin badge (Available to buy here for £6)

Funds from the sale of both of these products goes towards keeping PhDepression going – that will likely include costs for the website, potentially travel to help the team spread the PhDepression message through giving talks, whatever they need to help support the project and enable the team to carry on the important work that they are doing.

If you are a graduate student or researcher that’s struggling with your mental health, please go to The PhDepression for help and support – if you would like someone to talk to, or somewhere to go to find out about what sort of help is available to you, these people are offering a completely free network designed simply to help.

‘Thank You/Self Care’ Set of 5 Notecards (Available to buy here for £7.50)

For more information on The PhDepression head here:

thephdepression.com
twitter.com/Ph_D_epression
instagram.com/ph_d_epression

On Talking: Some Thoughts on Mental Health

We are told to talk.
Talking will change things;
Talking will ‘end the stigma‘.

I have talked,
I am still talking,
Talking is not enough.


Today is World Mental Health Day; the day that social media feeds are filled with posts about people’s experience of poor mental health, photographs of anxiety meds and anti-depressants flood Instagram and Twitter in an effort to normalise these experiences and end the stigma.

This happens every year, and it’s not enough.

Talking is good, I agree with that, but we are talking. I talk regularly about my mental health – I’ve posted about what it was like to be diagnosed with depression whilst doing a PhD and that post has been read by hundreds of people, and I’m very open with friends and colleagues about the fact that sometimes my brain just doesn’t work how I want it to. I’ve emailed my supervisors and colleagues asking to reschedule meetings because I just couldn’t think properly that day, I’ve convinced my boyfriend to travel to a conference with me because I felt too anxious to go alone. I’ve been there, and I’ve been brutally open and honest about it. I’m not ashamed, I talk about the fact that without my ‘delicious antidepressants’ I might not have got out of bed that day.

I talked to my Doctor. I paid to talk to a counsellor, that didn’t work for me and it wasn’t sustainable (£40 for a 50 minute session). I waited 18 months until I could talk to a counsellor on the NHS, and she told me to think about losing weight, doing some exercise and eating more healthily (she hadn’t asked how much exercise I was doing or what my diet was like).

Talking is not enough.

Talking may work to ‘end the stigma’, but ending the stigma is not enough.
We need action.

Earlier this year I read an article in The Metro that summed up my thoughts pretty well:

Theresa May said last year, ‘We must get over the stigma’. Okay, lip service paid. But then, as part of the same speech, she says it’s ‘wrong for people to assume that the only answer to these issues is about funding’ and that no more money will be available to develop services. It feels like being told: ‘Sorry pal, we know your leg’s broken. We can’t put a cast on it right now (budget cuts), but just know that we’re working to reduce the stigma against users of crutches. Off you go.’”

On this World Mental Health Day, instead of posting on social media, don’t just like and retweet the posts you see about mental ill health, do something about it.

Ask for change:
Petition – Drastically improve funding for Mental Health Services within the UK
Petition – Fund facilities for people who feel suicidal so they always have somewhere to go
Contact your MP
Work to make your workplace more mentally healthy with this 7-step guide
If you are able to, donate to local organisations that are working to keep mental health services and support in place in your community Mental Health Foundation, Mind, Scottish Association for Mental Health, Support in Mind Scotland.

If you are in the UK and you need access to mental health help and support services, please take a look here.

PhD Life and Depression

This is a much more personal post than any I’ve posted on this blog before, but I’m hoping that what I have to say will put things into perspective, and encourage other PhD students to speak up.

I have depression.

I think I’ve probably struggled with depression since the first year of my undergraduate degree (2010), but I didn’t tackle the issue and get help until January this year. Last year was a really difficult one for me personally, and after Christmas and New Year I decided that I was fed up of being mopey – to be quite honest I was boring myself, and I missed being excited about stuff. I went to see my GP and she was brilliant (yet another case of ‘I love the NHS’) – she gave me medication and arranged a follow-up appointment to check how I was doing in a month’s time. Since then I’ve doubled the dosage but stayed on the same medication, and things finally feel like they’re starting to get easier.

If you have never had depression, it’s difficult to get your head around – looking at it from the outside people can think you’re lazy or workshy when you become the textbook flakey friend/colleague who cancels more than usual. The only way I can describe it, is that it feels like you’ve got a really heavy blanket over you all the time, it’s so heavy that it’s tiring to drag around with you whilst you do normal tasks like go to work or go to the gym. For me, it’s been a constant source of frustration. I want to do loads of things, I’m still really excited about my PhD, but when I sit down and try to focus this big heavy blanket seems to cover everything. Motivation has been in short supply, but I’m just as stubborn as I am miserable (the fact I’ve maintained a sense of humour helps!) – so I’ve kept on going as much as I possibly can. That might mean going into the office on a Sunday purely because my motivation has come back and I want to make the most of it.

I’ve read a lot online about PhD students and the mental health problems that come with the pressure of academia – here, here and here are decent starting points. My depression has in no way been a result of my PhD. If anything, I think that doing the PhD has kept me going – so I wanted to add my two cents to the internet of ‘terrible things PhD students go through’, with a more balanced perspective. To be clear, I know lots of PhD students will have mental health issues that are linked to their studies; I’m not belittling their experience at all, I just want to even things out with my own experiences.

As I said earlier, I think I’ve had depression for about 7 years now, and I have no doubt that my PhD was the thing that made me get help. It wasn’t because I was under intense pressure, or that I didn’t think I’d ever be able to write a thesis – the reason I finally said something to my GP was because I was so bloody annoyed that I couldn’t drag my ass to work each day and I wasn’t able to read papers or write coherently anymore. It was purely frustration – it felt like my PhD was slipping away from me, and I really love the work I do so I wasn’t willing to let that happen.

I don’t feel unsupported at work. Lots of posts I’ve read online say that PhD students are left alone, they suffer from isolation and they get lonely. Again, I don’t doubt that, but it’s not the case for me. The colleagues that surround me are brilliant – some are hilariously funny and mean I’m left smiling all day even after a 5-minute chat in the morning, others express surprise when I’m not myself and ask how I’m doing completely unprompted, some especially brilliant colleagues have been known to leave a little note or treat on my desk, my Supervisors are amazing and always seem to pick up on a down day before I’ve even mentioned it. It’s not that I’m lonely, it’s that I’ve got this heavy blanket weighing me down, and to be honest dragging it around is just too much hassle and it’s easier to stay at home for the day sometimes. Other days I get up and sort myself out as normal, go to work and have a totally normal day – whatever that is.

For now, my PhD work is on target. I’m working weird hours because I’m a bit rubbish in the mornings – I’m very much a night owl and whilst I’m in a bit of a funk it’s just better to roll with what my brain is willing to do. If that means abstract screening at 11pm after snoozing until after 9am that’s fine.

I’m aware that I’m very lucky with my PhD experiences, I genuinely wish I could remain a PhD student for at least another 3 years – I’ve never heard anyone else say that!

The world of academia isn’t all doom and gloom, there are research teams up and down the country that create the most brilliant learning environments for students. So if you’re considering doing a PhD bear that in mind, and make sure you find a team you click with before you start. If you’re already doing a PhD and you’re experiencing these kinds of problems, please do speak up and ask for help. 9 times out of 10 people are not actively isolating you, they’re just too busy to realise you need support – tell them, and then try your best to get rid of the British stiff upper lip and take the help when it’s offered. A PhD is not some sort of horrendous mental health journey, it’s supposed to be part of your career that allows you to learn and build your research experience; it’s meant to be (at least somewhat) fun.

I’m not really sure how to end this post, but I hope it’s showed the other side of the argument when it comes to PhDs and mental health. Mental health issues are so common, and I think it’s important that PhDs and academia are not blamed for those issues entirely – sometimes they’re just what’s needed to make someone realise they need a helping hand every now and again.

If you’re struggling – one of my earlier posts on academic self-care might have some useful tips.