Depression, flight 9525 and the media – stigma sticks

extra-extra-news2

“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.

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January tinted glasses

Calvin and Hobbes

Humans are a predictable bunch, especially at this time of year. After the alcohol-drenched din of festive season revelry has dwindled and eventually died, those of us fortunate enough to have spent the last couple of weeks overindulging with loved ones are generally doing one of three things. De-toxing, wallowing in a pit of January depression or searching for The One.

For many the new year is a time to wipe the proverbial slate clean, boot the previous year into oblivion and seek the kind of change that promises to make us deliriously, over the top, Jessica-Simpson-on-fruit-pastilles, happy. And this change comes in the form of The One – something we desperately seek as a quick fix for all our current problems and a guarantee for future bliss.

The One comes in many varied incarnations but being as simple as we are, there seem to be three main things we tend to place at the epicentre of our potential for happiness – relationships, where we live and what we do for a living.

Take relationships. Statistics dictate that the period between Christmas and New Year is the busiest time of year for online dating sites; with around 350 per cent more traffic expected post Crimbo. With one in five relationships now starting online it’s not surprising that the masses are flocking to their laptops, ipads and smart phones to cure their loneliness – Match.com reports typically seeing a 25 to 30 percent increase in new members registrations between Boxing Day and Valentine’s Day.

If we’re not looking for Mr or Mrs Right to top up our happy meter, we might be turning our attention to our careers. If you’re looking to ensure joyful living through snapping up an exciting and meaningful new job, then now is a good time to iron the interview trousers and practice your most sincere ‘my biggest weakness really is my workaholism’ face.

In fact if you’re really smart you’ll have got ahead of the game and already started looking. Employers are increasingly mindful of the January recruitment rush and, according to a recent Monster report, December is becoming a much more active month for HR departments advertising job vacancies. In fact applications are tending to slow down more than openings do during the holiday season – tipping the balance in favour of those mentally strong enough to put down the mulled wine and work on their CV.

Finally, it’s common to be looking for The One in the form of a dream living location at this time of year. In my corner of Berkshire the luminous, multi-layered colours and textures of autumn have given way to an all-consuming and oppressive greyness and a damp chill that even seven gallons of Earl Grey can’t rectify. If you’re not fantasising about migrating to some far flung spot in the southern hemisphere where your days comprise trips to a sun drenched beach to be served mojitos by an Argentine model named Diego, then there’s something wrong with you.

It’s not a coincidence that mid January is the most popular time of year for lucky gap year students to leave the country and skip off to warmer climes. Mid-winter in this country is undeniably shite. But for those of us that actually need to work for a living and have family attachments here, running off into sunny oblivion just isn’t realistic. However for some people, simply moving within their own country is enough to shake life up a little. If you really are suffering from new year dissatisfaction and want to get on the property ladder, apparently January is the best time to make an offer on a house.

While the above are all valid mechanisms for improving quality of life, there’s also a strong chance that anyone hell bent on dramatically changing one of these three things right now is suffering from gin and mince pie overload and a bout of rash and idealistic daydreaming. Unless you’ve been seriously thinking about finding love, moving jobs or relocating for some time, you might find that in a few weeks – after your liver and digestive tract have a chance to splutter back into life- you don’t feel so anxious to upend your life.

Searching for The One can also be a symptom of ‘I’m Not Happy Because…’ disease – a terrible affliction which causes us to blame a variety of external causes for our flagging wellbeing and self esteem. Anything but ourselves.

How to Win Friends and Influence People author Dale Carnegie once said: “It isn’t what you have, or who you are, or where you are, or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about.” And from one wise author dude to a slightly less wise custard cream lover, I would have to agree.  It’s very easy to look to others to solve our problems, when maybe we simply need to look at things from a new perspective. That being said, if you’ve given serious, well thought through consideration to making major change in your life – go forth and conquer. I salute you.

Workplace robots and weeping in the boardroom

 

Have you ever cried in front of your boss, marched past a crowd of colleagues with your skirt tucked into your knickers, or accidentally said ‘penis’ to a client? If, like me, you can answer with three yes’s, then you’ll be very familiar with this boardroom juggling feat – being professional, while also being human.

As a teen, I remember when hitting 20 seemed so very distant and grown up. I also recall making the vague assumption that leaving University and getting a ‘real job’ would mark a significant milestone in my life – leaving the petty squabbles of student days behind, for the serene, conflict-free vista of office life with the adults.

Fast forward a few years and I soon discovered that people out in the real world – earning money and holding down posh sounding job titles – were just as childish as me and my fellow students.

One shred of wisdom I’ve picked up along my 29-year journey, is that age doesn’t always beget wisdom. Unfortunately getting older doesn’t mean we experience any less anger, irritation or irrational jealousy towards the people we spend time with; we just try to be mature about it. Cloaking ourselves in a veneer of professionalism at work, in theory, allows us to control our wayward emotions better. But in fact bottling up negative feelings can simply push us closer to boiling point. Or it can push that colleague you hate down the fire escape.

Nicollette Sheridan, better known as Edie from Desperate Housewives, once became embroiled in an off-set cat fight with the show’s creator Marc Cherry, when she brought a lawsuit against him for unfair dismissal. Sheridan alleges that her character was killed off from the show after she complained that Cherry had hit her on set, which he denies. Cherry then listed a catalogue of unprofessional actions, including punctuality, forgetting lines and being rude to a prop worker, that lead to Sheridan being let go.

Unlike Edie, you probably won’t be killed off if you act up at work, but you could find yourself having to resolve serious office politics, which have come as the result of pent up emotional outbursts, in an employment tribunal. The Ministry of Justice recorded 831,000 cases received by the Tribunals Service in 2010-2011, which marked a 31% rise since 2008.

We spend so much of our lives on the employment hamster wheel, often seeing our colleagues more than our own families, so it’s hardly surprising that things can get a bit tense in the workplace. And yet the traditional paradigm, that home is our realm for emotion and work a space for rational thought only, still seems to rule office life.

Which leads me to that ultimate career kiss of death – weeping at work.  Nobody wants to break down into tears during a meeting, but it happens, more often than we might think. Author Anne Kreamer, in a study of 700 Americans, revealed that 41 per cent of women had shed tears at work, compared with nine per cent of men.  And yet losing control is still seen as a real weakness in corporate culture, and a fast-track to losing the respect of fellow employees. Especially for women – even though we actually have much smaller tear ducts than men, so it’s physically harder to hold back the waterworks.

Over the last decade the world has been undergoing a well-being revolution. Ideology on how to look after mental health, fit relaxation into daily routines and better express emotions has permeated our hectic schedules, and the only facet of modern life that has yet to really catch up with this is work. If we’re all meditating before breakfast and finishing the day sipping green tea in downward dog yoga poses, the notion that behaving like a robot in the office is preferable to the occasional display of real human emotion just doesn’t make sense any longer.

Some things really are just better out than in, even when you’re wearing a power suit and playing at being an adult in a world where nobody really, truly seems to grow up – the office.