Living with Depression and Anxiety: some lessons learned

I have had the privilege of mentoring a group of students at Corinda State High School this year as part of the High Resolves Leadership program.  The group of students I have been working chose Mental Health Awareness as their project focus, specifically community awareness of depression and anxiety.  Yesterday I was honoured to be the guest speaker for their school wide awareness session.  I was asked to speak about my journey dealing with depression and anxiety.  I thought I would share my speech here as well:

Thank you for that introduction and I would like to thank the Grade 10 High Resolves group for inviting me to speak to you all today.   I am honored to speak to you on what is a very important topic and one that I am particularly passionate about.

The ideology of Project SMILE is to enhance your awareness of one of the most significant issues in society today: mental health and, particularly, dealing with stress, anxiety and depression. The reason that this issue is so important is obvious from the statistics that surround the suffering of these conditions.

Here are some of those statistics:

  • One in seven Australians will experience depression in their lifetime.
  • Depression has the third highest burden of all diseases in Australia. Burden of disease refers to the total impact of a disease measured by financial costs, mortality, morbidity and other indicators.
  • Depression is the number one cause of non-fatal disability in Australia.
  • The World Health Organization estimates that depression will be the number one health concern in both the developed and developing nations by 2030.

So I think it would be fair to say that depression, and its related disorder, anxiety are shockingly prevalent in society.

I did not come to speak to you today though to bombard you with statistics. There is a plenty of literature available where you can find out more about the numbers.  What I did come to talk to you about today are the lessons I have learned from my own journey as a man living and working with depression and anxiety.

You see I am one of those one in seven Australians who suffers from depression and anxiety.

 I cannot really remember when my depression and anxiety started.  I guess if I had to nail down a date I would say that my symptoms started in my last year of high school or first year of university.  At around this time I started to display these types of behaviors:

  • Not going out anymore.
  • Withdrawing from close friends.
  • Not doing activities I would ordinarily do.

At the time I was feeling:

  • Irritable
  • Frustrated; and
  • Lacking in confidence.

And I started having sleeping problems as well as started to gain significant weight.

All of these factors, I now know, are indicators or symptoms of depression.

Whilst it is great that I can identify these symptoms now and I know that at the time I knew I was feeling that way I did not know that what I was feeling was either anything unusual nor different to that which everyone was feeling.

Because of that fact, being that I was unaware that was I was feeling might have been indicative of something going on with my health, it was well into my 30s and only some 3 and half years ago that my depression and anxiety disorders were diagnosed and I got treatment. By that point I was displaying, in addition to the behaviors noted earlier, the following behaviors:

  • Not getting things done at work.
  • Withdrawing from my close family as well as my friends.
  • Inability to concentrate.
  • Reliance on alcohol.

By the time I was diagnosed there was not a day go by that I did not have thoughts like these running through my head:

  • “I’m a failure”
  • “Nothing good ever happens to me”
  • “People would be better off without me.”.

I mention all of these this symptoms, feelings and thoughts not because I wish to self-aggrandize. Nor do I wish for or seek sympathy.  My intention in revealing what my symptoms and thoughts during the 15 or so years I was living with my depression and anxiety without being treated is to give some context to the key messages I wanted to get across today.

The first message is this: there is no more important a lesson to learn in the area of dealing with depression and anxiety than to realize how important communication is to the treatment of these disorders.

From the perspective of a sufferer, there is not a day that goes by that I do not wish that I had have communicated what was going on with me much earlier than I did only some three and half years ago. The fact is that I did not have the courage to talk to people about what I was going through.  Not my family, not my friends and not my doctor.

It would also be fair to say that, particularly in the last couple of years before my diagnosis, when I was displaying obvious symptoms of some form of mental illness that I became an expert in deflecting the concerns of others and, indeed, got angry when some of those people closest to me asked me whether I was ok. So much so that those closest to me stopped asking me how I was feeling.  

If you are suffering from the symptoms of the depression and anxiety, I implore you to find a way to communicate how you are feeling. Talk to your family, talk to your friends, talk to your teachers … in fact talk to anyone you feel comfortable talking to and be open and honest about how you are feeling.

Just as importantly, if someone who is close to you is exhibiting the signs of depression and anxiety you have to ask them whether they are ok. And when they rebuff you, which they will inevitably do, you have to keep asking until you are satisfied that you have received an honest answer.  That is your challenge, everyone one of you, to engage with those around you who you suspect might have a problem and help them if you can.  You will be astonished at how thankful that person will be for your help.

Depression and anxiety are significant issues in society. They affect one in seven Australians at some point in their life.  Look around you, consider that statistic and then consider the number of people in this room.  Being aware of and able to communicate with each other about these disorders could very help a number of people in this room at some point.

I am pleased to say that, eventually, I was able to seek help for my conditions and 3 and a half years later I am in a better place than I have been in a very long time. Therein lies my second message that I wanted to impart on you today: depression and anxiety disorders are treatable conditions.  Sufferers of these disorders can and are treated for them whilst leading successful, fulfilling and happy lives.  Of course, in order to get that treatment communication, as I have already discussed, must occur.

I thank you again for the opportunity to speak to you today.

 

And then there were two … Super Rugby Final 2014: Just don’t tell me I should support the Waratahs!

After the predicted became reality last night and it was confirmed that the Waratahs would host the Crusaders in the Super Rugby final for 2014 an interesting, and not unusual, phenomenon started, both in my text messages and social media timeline: a call to arms that I, as an Australian, should support the Waratahs, as of right, in next weeks final.

Here are 5 reasons why, at best, I will be a neutral viewer of next weekend’s final:

1. I am a Queenslander, born in Ipswich, and I have never, ever, supported a team representing New South Wales in winning a sporting contest. And I never will. It is a parochial thing.

2. I have written before that my enthusiasm for any sporting code wanes once my supported side is out of the finals and, frankly, with the Queensland Reds out of contention it would be fair to say I am somewhat ambivalent to the outcome of the game on the weekend.

3. I keep hearing, particularly on Foxsports and in the Sydney media, that a Super Rugby final in Sydney is “one of the most important games in Australian Rugby’s history”. What an absolutely specious statement: if it was the Rebels or Force hosting the final that that statement would have merit but not in the current context. Just because the press think the Waratahs have earned some sort of special status above other finals combatants of the past does not mean I have to support them.

4. When my beloved Reds made the final, and won it, I did not ask, nor did I expect fans of any other franchise to support my team. To do so, in my view, would be to ask said fans to change their colours and is nothing short of disingenuous.

5. As a Queenslander and lover of Rugby’s hoodoos and history I, personally, find comfort in the Waratahs’ 18 year streak of not winning the Super Rugby title. It just feels right to me that that hoodoo remain for one more year.

The coming final will be an epic encounter between the two best teams in the competition this year. Make no mistake about that. I look forward to watching it: just don’t ask me to support the Waratahs!

Communication and the immediacy expectation: is patience the only answer?

The advent of the internet and, by extension, smart phones has seen the way we communicate become quicker and quicker. Everyone has, it would seem, as a minimum, a phone which they can receive a SMS message. The vast majority of people have a phone that is internet enabled and receive email as well on their phones or tablets.

Add this high level of connectivity to the plethora of means by which we also communicate by social media and the urge, nay the need, to communicate with immediacy has become ever more in recent times.

Don’t get me wrong: I love my smart phone and love the fact that I can communicate where ever I am no matter the time or day or the night. That said, I am bothered by these issues that flow from this communication availability:

1. All too often misunderstandings seem to arise when one does not answer a text, email or tweet immediately. I am sure everyone reading this blog has been in a situation where they have received, for example, a text but they have not immediately answered because you are focused on something else and then you receive a second text asking “Are you ignoring me?” or worse the person on the other end gets angry without any rational basis.

2. Particularly in the context of communications for business the urge to respond immediately often seems to lead to the sending of communications without thinking about the effect of the reply being sent or, worse, without checking that what one is saying is correct. Unfortunately, the expectation that email is a communication form that is read upon being sent leads to a further expectation that a response is going to be sent immediately. That pressure to reply can lead to mistakes.

Recent situations in both categories in my own life have gotten me thinking about how best to deal with the immediacy expectation that vests from the way we communicate in 2014. The following approaches I have jettisoned either because they are rude, unwieldy or they play right in to the hands of the immediacy expectation:

1. Setting up a rule in my phone / email accounts that everytime I receive an email or a text message an automated reply is sent acknowledging receipt and noting that I will reply as soon as I am able to.

2. Ignoring an email / text message until I receive a follow up email, text or call about the first email / text message.

3. Sending an email / text / social media message to every one of my contacts every day advising of my likely availability to reply to their communications on that particular day.

None of these strategies are all that palatable are they? Nor are they workable in my view.

Having considered all of these options I kept coming back to a central premise: we all (I should say I have been guilty of wondering and worrying about a delayed reply as much as the next person too) could just be a little bit more patient when it comes to communicating.

It is hard to believe but it is true that not 25 years ago very few people had mobile phones, the use of email was not prevalent and social media networks did not exist. Letters and calls to the fixed telephone were the only broadly available means of communicating. I am sure in those times people did not spend anywhere near as much time wondering if they were going to get a reply soon as we do now. Why? Because the nature of the communication methods available required an inherent level of patience.

Surely the application of a similar level of patience today in communications as that which was the norm 25 years ago is the way to avoid all of the issues that come from the immediacy expectation.

Maybe this is too simplistic an approach but it is one I am going to try. The next time you have the urge to send a message that says “Did you get my last message? or “Are you ignoring me?” maybe being patient could work for you too. I hope it works for me!

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