Depression, flight 9525 and the media – stigma sticks

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“Killer pilot suffered from depression.”

“Depressed German deliberately flew into mountain.”

“Suicide pilot had a long history of depression – why on earth was he allowed to fly?”

By now you’d have to have been trapped deep in the wilderness in a cave guarded by angry honey badgers not to know that Andreas Lubitz – the Germanwings pilot responsible for last week’s tragic plane crash – had previously suffered from a mental illness. These tabloid headlines build a very simple equation for the public masses clamouring to know how anyone could carry out such a monstrous act – depression equals danger.

This isn’t just irresponsible and insensitive reporting – it’s a fantastic way to try and wipe out years of toil against mental illness stigma, through the scribble of a pen. So far all we know about Lubitz is that the police found torn up sick notes in his flat and that he was unwell in 2009 with something that may or may not have been depression. What has this meant to the papers? That 150 plane passengers were murdered by a mental illness.

One in five people will endure clinical depression at some point in their lives (I strongly believe this figure could be much higher – stigma makes many hide their illness). That’s around 350 million depressives worldwide. One of them has crashed a plane which is, obviously, horrific. That doesn’t mean everyone else suffering from the illness is a potentially murderous risk to the safety of the public at large – we mustn’t confuse a terrible, debilitating mental health condition with motive to do harm.

I can’t, and I won’t, speculate on why this man took down a plane full of innocent human beings. The truth is we’ll probably never know what was behind his actions. Did something slip through the net during his health check-up? Don’t know. Was he actually supposed to be signed off work sick? No idea. Was he harbouring secret mass murder plots hatched between himself and his pet hedgehog, Wolfgang? I know more about nuclear fission than I do this subject. What I do know, however, is that massive headlines equating past experience of mental illness with colossal risk is misleading and dangerous. In the case of depression, stigma literally costs lives.

I hated listening to the news when I was clinically depressed a few years ago. Not that I particularly enjoy the relentless barrage of negativity now, but a few years ago when I was poorly the radio bulletins literally felt like a physical assault on my ears. I’d hear tales of misery from war-torn countries and wonder what the point of living in such a terrible world was. I’d see the story about the mentally ill mother who killed herself and her two children and feel the white-hot creep of terror that my illness might turn me into someone like that. If something like this had hit the headlines while I was in the throes of self-esteem-eroding, guilt-soaked and paranoia-laden mental illness I know I would have really struggled. People with depression can already feel (totally illogically) that they’re bad people, a danger to society or just generally incapable of carrying out the simplest of tasks without cocking it up. When they see these darkest fears confirmed in bold newspaper print, instead of laughing it off as bad journalism they may well believe it and just sink further into self doubt.

I have many friends and family members that have lived through depression and currently hold down all kinds of positions of responsibility. They’re doctors, teachers, support workers, entrepreneurs and CEOs. I work in a children’s centre. We’re all fantastic at our jobs.

I don’t know what the protocol for pilots that are in the middle of mental health treatment is – of course the assessment for those in charge of safely transporting us across the skies should be rigorous and examined on a case-by-case basis. Should anyone that’s currently suffering from severe depression with brain fog, poor concentration, exhaustion, back pain and all it’s other varied symptoms be flying a plane? Of course not. Clinical depression is a physical illness too – I could barely safely drive a car when I was at my worst, let alone a plane. But there’s a vast difference between responsible reporting about a man who was suffering from an ‘unspecified illness’ who perhaps should have been signed off sick, to making a broad and generalised link between someone having ‘a history of depression’ and the idea that they shouldn’t have been in employment.

People make full recoveries from depression all the time. It’s actually likely that they go on to become healthier, more useful individuals than those never bitten by the black dog – facing the future with a new perspective and better ways to manage stress. I never really paid much attention to my health before I became depressed – now I’m uncompromising about looking after myself, and this has a positive ripple effect across my life, relationships and capability in the workplace.

Linking experience of depression with risk and danger isn’t just irresponsible, it doesn’t make any sense. Someone in full remission from cancer wouldn’t be expected to taper their career and general life expectations – depression is no different. The last twenty years or so have seen a surge in public acceptance of depression as what it is – a horrible and indiscriminate illness that can affect anyone, anywhere, that you can completely recover from – but judging by this last week’s press, we still have a long way to go.

Plate smashing and murder at the swimming pool – dealing with anger

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“Bugger off I’m MEDITATING!” I yell, in a tone not dissimilar to a grizzly bear, as my teeth grind in frustration and  steam begins to gently hiss from my ears. Whoever had just hesitantly tapped on my bedroom door retreats quietly in fear, and it’s at this point I realise that perhaps, just maybe, my quest for inner zen isn’t working as well as I’d hoped.

Everyone battles with nasty feelings of anger and frustration every now and then – it’s part of life. Traffic jams, messy inconsiderate flatmates, unanswered text messages, Boris Johnson – we all have our trigger points. But if you’re dealing with depression, anxiety or plain old chronic fatigue (or all three) the chances are that anger plays a much larger role in your daily life than is healthy, and if it’s not managed, it can cause a lot of problems.

At the height of my worst ever tangle with the black dog, I recall one day seriously debating whether or not I should leave the house and go for a swim at the local pool, because I felt like I was ‘dangerous’. That’s how angry I felt. I was genuinely worried that my simmering, impotent rage was a hazard to civilised society – that I might end up losing control and doing some damage. I might thump the receptionist if she looked at me the wrong way, or push a pensioner over in the jacuzzi. What if someone tried to use my float while I was off perfecting my butterfly? I couldn’t be responsible for my actions with a pull buoy in my hand.

I was being ridiculous, of course. While I was unwell I was no more dangerous to any member of the public than a grumpy cat is to a rhinoceros – but the anger and irritability that come with depression and exhaustion can make you numb to all that’s good and light, it can convince you that you hate everything and everyone, and it can make you doubt yourself in ways you never thought possible. It also has the capacity to turn you into a grade A bitch.

The people I love the most – a dear friend, a brother, my Mum – sometimes unwittingly become vessels into which I unload toxic irritation, frustration, anger and angst. Using your nearest and dearest as multiple punching bags is not cool, I’m well aware. But sometimes every innocent word that tumbles out of their mouth becomes irritating and rage inducing, through no fault of their own – ‘What are you up to today?’ may as well be ‘I broke into your house and painted the walls with cat shit’. You want to deck them for simply having the audacity to start a friendly conversation with you.

At times like this I know I’m being cruel and unloving, but unlocking the part of myself that knows how to reach out and be affectionate, kind and contrite feels like an impossible task. ‘Say you’re sorry! Tell them you really don’t mean to be such a heartless bitch…tell them you LOVE them and you’re only acting this way because you’re hurting,’ is what my heart shrieks desperately to my brain, but I must have some loose wiring somewhere because I never seem able to spit these words out in the heat of the moment.

When anger strikes, avoiding behaving like a petulant child and alienating everyone that cares about you can be so damn hard. But if you’re looking for ways not to end up a social pariah, you can always remember that however hard life is for you right now, it’s pretty crap for your friends and family too – and not just because you’re being about as friendly as an iceberg. It’s truly terrible seeing someone you care about in pain, especially when you don’t know how to help them, or feel like they won’t let you try. I know that all my parents especially have ever wanted is to see me happy, and when I lash out in anger and misery I don’t just hurt myself – I hurt them too. Knowing this is good motivation to hold my tongue when I’m feeling crabby.

And there are always plates. I’ve always said there’s an untapped market for plate smashing therapy rooms at Ikea – you’d be amazed at the simple, glorious joy to be found in buying a £3 bargain box of plates only to go somewhere private and smash the hell out of each and every one of them.

Ultimately, though, all the anger management in the world won’t stop the occasional slip-up. The unnecessary snide comment, the over-reactive retort or the cruel put-down…all because your anger has nowhere else to go.

Which is why I’m going to take a few deep breaths and chase after whoever it was that unintentionally interrupted my peace and incurred my wrath. Because they probably only came knocking to see how I am. Because it’s not their fault I’m in a stinking mood. Because even though I don’t particularly feel like being nice, I don’t particularly feel like closing the door on my loved ones either. One day they might just stop knocking.