Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Depression in the digital age

Until I had depression, I didn’t understand what it was. If I said I was depressed, it was usually because of something inconsequential like staying late at work. That’s not being depressed, that’s being fed up – at worst, pissed off. But it’s not being depressed.

Depression is the complete and utter, all-consuming gloom. It’s the dark cloud that saps your energy, your spark and sometimes your will to live. It can be the torment of countless, endless, sleepless nights, trying to remember to breathe slowly while staring at the ceiling and knowing (knowing) you are the only person in the whole wide world who is awake at that time. And it is a thousand other permutations of barely living misery. Depression cannot be overstated.

So for people who don’t understand depression to say they’re depressed ‘cos there’s no milk for their tea, is really rather insulting.

But it’s also understandable. Because if they haven’t experienced depression themselves, or seen someone they are close to experience it, why would they understand it? Depression is one of those things that people just don’t talk about because it’s to do with “mental health” and the unfortunate link that having “mental health problems” makes to someone therefore “being mental” and having “the people in white coats come and take them away”. Depression is not glamorous, even if celebrities come out and say they have mental health problems, too. Sadly, unless handled well (Catherine Zeta Jones, Stephen Fry), they often get mocked for it (Kerry Katona, Charlie Sheen).

Which is why the internet is a wonderful thing. The essential charity Mind has a website that is filled with an endless stream of priceless resources, support and advice. In my early days of depression, I nervously visited their website worrying it might be tracked in my internet history file, and another user of my computer would then judge me as “mental”. This never happened. But what did happen was that I found lifelines such as plain English factsheets explaining why feeling the way I did was OK, and audio files of relaxation sessions to ease me through a panic attack, which I could burn to a CD and play endlessly. Mind’s website, which is laid out in such a simple yet unpatronising way (perfect for those visiting in a less than clam state), is straightforward, easy to use and unendingly supportive.

Extensions of the Mind website (and similar organisations) are their Facebook and Twitter profiles (@MindCharity, @the_elephant_, @timetochange, @Rethink_), and associated #timetochange and #whatstigma hashtags… plus more I’ve probably forgotten, apologies. All of these are updated throughout the day with useful suggestions, relevant news stories and interesting links – and you should follow them all.

Bizarrely, a further extension of how social media helps to challenge ignorance and offer unconditional support, is (surprisingly – to me, at least) through the Twitter timeline. In real life, I feel too embarrassed to tell all but my closest friends that I have depression – it just never comes up in conversation. I certainly don’t tell my employer, even though I’m 99% sure they’d be supportive. And I don’t shout about it on Twitter… but slowly, over the months I’ve spent in the Twittersphere, I’ve seen a few hints from people I follow (who I don’t know in real life, but I follow because they post amusing or insightful commentary on the news, or funny pictures of puppies in berets, or because they were once in a band I liked) that maybe some of them have depression, too. And while I obviously don’t feel pleased that they do, it is also incredibly reassuring to know that there must be thousands of other people out there (people who are pretty much like me) who do their best to get on with their lives, but some days it’s just not happening. And so when someone I follow suddenly apologises for being on Twitter that day, and saying they should never log on when “the black dog” is around, a light bulb of affinity and connection clicks in my mind.

Like anywhere, Twitter obviously has its negative characters, but like anywhere, they are outweighed by the genuinely kind and generous people who populate the community. And in 10+ years of being online, I’ve never found that anywhere like I have on Twitter. Twitter is addictive because it is a 24/7 stream of news, jokes and funny pictures of cats on a mocked up front page of The Guardian. But it’s also addictive because among the anger and resentment at the bastards who are ruining our country and crippling us financially, there is a real sense of camaraderie and team spirit. There are sometimes people on Twitter who, when having a bad time, tweet about what a shit day they’ve had – and receive messages of genuine support from total strangers. Which is sometimes what you need, because often it’s easier to tell your problems to a stranger than it is to those you’re closest to in real life. I’m not saying that joining Twitter is the answer to depression, but it is certainly an amazing support network – even if people don’t realise that’s what they’re doing.


  1. I suffer with depression maybe it's something creative types are more suseptible to? I don't know, but there is still a stigma about people with mental health problems, and I am still wary about telling people about my own issues because of the fear of being judged as mental or a nutter if I do.

  2. Talking these things through is good. I've got to a stage where I can hopefully put it behind me, and talking it through definately has healing qualities.