Following the death of a friend and colleague, journalist Ian Cundell gives a very personal account of his own battle with depression
In the film Melancholia it was a planet smashing into Earth. In Harry Potter it was dementors sucking hope without mercy. In Doctor Who it was a blind, invisible alien hounding Van Gogh to his end. To Winston Churchill it was his Black Dog, at his heels even in his finest hour. Writers are good at metaphor.
For David Chippendale, friend, colleague, researcher without peer and thoroughly decent bloke, the demons were not metaphors, but all too real (David committed suicide at his home in Dingle, County Kerry, on 7 March).
Depression does not care how decent you are, or how successful or how loved you are. It is indifferent. Unrelenting. Merciless. It is a killer.
I suffer from clinical depression and, with hindsight, probably have done for 30 years or more. I have never been pushed to the brink of reason in the way that David was, but I have felt on many occasions like packing a bag and not looking back.
At my worst, I could down a bottle of Scotch in an evening’s drinking (I rarely drink now). I could smoke 60 a day (I no longer smoke). I could withdraw from the world for weeks at a time or go out with friends and, getting home, feel a pit of despair opening.
Three years ago, I finally recognised that I needed help and went to my GP. After some counselling that seemed to make things worse, earlier this year I accepted that I needed medication to keep my mood stable for a while, albeit at the cost of some annoying side effects.
So I write from a position of knowledge.
Take a look around your office. If there are 20 people there, the odds are that at least five of them suffer from chronic or recurring depression – which is what clinical depression is – and it is most likely undiagnosed.
For one-in-four of us it is always there, lurking in the background.
Can you spot which ones? Is it the quiet geek tinkering with the spreadsheets? Maybe, but merely being quiet isn’t, in itself, a sign. Is it the happy-go-lucky, first-to-the-bar partner? Maybe not, but depressives are staggeringly good at wearing masks.
The problem is made worse by property being a male-dominated industry, and men are not encouraged to discuss feelings or do anything that could be construed as a weakness.
But I also know, from years working in the industry, that it is full of kind and generous people, who give freely of time and spirit, as well as money. It is this cohort – almost unknown to the general public – that I am reaching out to.
Here are a few things you can do
First, understand that there is a world of a difference between someone who is depressed because of (say) work stress and someone to whom that stress pours sulphuric acid on the wounds that are always there.
That is the fundamental difference between an attack of “the blues” and depression.
It is age-indifferent. Your youngest graduate recruit or your most trusted partner could be the one, or perhaps your marketing assistant or receptionist.
Spouses are often unaware of their partner’s torment until it is too late; parents too easily dismiss youth depression as “hormones”.
Has someone’s behaviour changed, showing in particular a noticeable lack of interest in things that used to bring pleasure, especially social activities? Whether there is an evident cause (a “stressor” in the parlance) or not, this is one of the first signs of trouble.
Have someone’s eating habits changed noticeably, either over-eating or losing appetite? This could be a physical illness, but our guts are often the first place that anxiety and worry finds expression.
Is someone having noticeably more headaches, general aches and pains and gastric upset? Is someone going through aspirin like sweets?
Constant fatigue, poor concentration and other signs of too little or too much sleep are another red flag, since depression is not conducive to sound sleep.
And then there is the biggie: has someone shown signs of self-harm or expressed unexpectedly morbid thoughts, or – the red flag of red flags – talked of ending it all?
If you answer “yes” to any of these questions then what you do is obvious, isn’t it? You ask. “You seem troubled. What’s up? What help do you need?”
Seriously: what is the worst-case scenario? That you show someone you care.
I wish I could promise that you will deliver a miracle cure, but I can’t: David’s demons were too strong and too fierce for those who were trying to help. But it is very likely indeed that you will make somebody’s life better. So what are you waiting for?
Stop reading for a few minutes, and ask.
Depression is not a weakness, but an illness. And before you consider taking medication here are some things that you can do to try to help yourself.
Fighting negative attitudes
Try to recognise the pattern of negative thinking when you are doing it, and replace it with a more constructive activity. Look for things to do that occupy your mind.
Activity is good for the mind
It’s very therapeutic to take part in physical activities for 20 minutes a day, which can stimulate endorphins.
Caring for yourself
Do things to improve the way you feel about yourself. Positive experiences reinforce the idea that you deserve good things. Pay attention to your personal appearance. Set yourself goals that you can achieve to give yourself a sense of satisfaction. Eat healthily– oily fish, in particular, may help to alleviate depression. Tobacco, alcohol and other drugs will make it worse.
Alternative and complementary therapies
Practitioners may offer treatments such as acupuncture, massage, homeopathy and herbal medicine. St John’s Wort may help to lift your mood. Consult your pharmacist or GP for advice before taking anything.
It can be a great relief to meet and share thoughts with other people who are going through the same experiences.
Samaritans on 08457 909090