It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and this year’s theme is “thriving not surviving”. I take this to mean that you deserve to be happy and healthy, in short to thrive. It’s ok to take your mental wellbeing seriously regardless of whether or not you have been officially diagnosed with a mental health problem.
This is something I’m extremely passionate about. I struggled with my mental health for years before I even went to see a doctor because I didn’t think the problems I was having were “bad enough” to deserve help. I wish someone had told my teenage self that it was ok to ask for help, and in particular that the things I was struggling with indicated that I might actually have depression. I may not have been able to prevent my eventual breakdown, but I do think that had I sought help sooner I would have been better equipped to deal with it and would have recovered a lot quicker.
So if you’re reading this and you’re wondering whether you might have depression, here are the early warning signs of depression that I missed. This is not a definitive list of the symptoms of depression, but rather an example based on my experience of how supposedly “mild” symptoms can be ignored and make your life a constant struggle.
- Feeling down most of the time. This is perhaps the most obvious one, but to be honest I just thought that this was normal. As I wasn’t having thoughts about self harm or suicide, I assumed that my low periods weren’t serious enough to ask help. Yet it wasn’t just the odd bad day. Particularly during parts of Sixth Form, I felt rubbish, low, or flat nearly all of the time. I remember going out for a meal with friends on my 18th birthday and noticing that I actually felt happy because it was such a rare feeling for me at that time. The NHS Choices website says that if you feel consistently low in mood for two weeks or more you could be depressed and should consider talking to you GP. So if you feel like this – go and get help! You will not be wasting anyone’s time, and it’s much better to get depression sorted before it becomes more severe and harder to treat.
- Unexplained and consistent tiredness. I think this is one of the less well known signs of depression. Yet for many people, unexplained tiredness is one of the first signs of a depressive episode. When I went through my first depression, I was constantly exhausted, despite the fact that I was getting a regular 8 hours a night. I was completely unable to stay awake through many of my afternoon classes, which was really distressing as a hardworking student. I tried everything, but I literally could not keep my eyes open. And whilst I think I’m someone who maybe needs a bit more sleep than most and who can fall asleep anywhere, this was different. Not only would I sleep through entire classes, but I would get home from school and just sleep for two or so hours until dinner almost every single day.
- Becoming withdrawn. When I was at school, I think everyone thought I was super hardworking because I just didn’t have that much of a social life, and I spent most of my time in my bedroom “studying”. In fact, I spent most of my free time either sleeping or not really doing anything productive at all. Whilst I had some amazing friends at school, I didn’t make plans to do things outside of school that often, and I didn’t spend all that much time with my family either.
- Struggling to keep up with work or other commitments. This one is very subjective, because on the surface I was a high-achieving student with great exam results. However, in reality I was struggling to hold it together. I would waste most of my time just being depressed and left most of my work to the very last minute. And whilst I was able to meet the requirements set by my teachers, I wasn’t able to enjoy my A levels in the way I had hoped I would because I just didn’t have the headspace. This point isn’t about what grades you get – it’s about what’s normal for you and if you’re able to function at the level you want to and know you’re capable of.
- Excessive rumination. As a 16/17 year old, I became obsessed with the idea that my life was completely meaningless. At my lowest, I would spend hours everyday trying to work out what the point of my life actually was, because it didn’t feel like there was one. Previously, I had been extremely focused on exams, and I got the grades I was aiming for. But after I got those grades, everyone forgot all about GCSEs, including me – they just became kind of irrelevant. I’d been so motivated by academics for so long, and suddenly I just felt like I didn’t know what I was doing with my life anymore. I got into a real rut where I became obsessed with the idea my life had no meaning, and it took a long time for me to get past that.
- Anxiety. I’ve always been quite an anxious person, and this was no different when I first became depressed. I could spend hours worrying about things that just weren’t real problems. Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand, so it’s worth looking out for both.
- Low self-esteem. Until I went through therapy, I just didn’t really like myself. My confidence was very low, and I always assumed that I would fail so that I didn’t set myself up for disappointment. As a child, I struggled with anger largely as a result of bereavement, yet in my head this was evidence that I was a fundamentally bad person. I wished I could be more fun, more outgoing – in short, someone people would want to spend time with. Of course, none of this was an accurate representation of who I really was, and since going through therapy I’ve actually learned to like myself. I might make mistakes, but that doesn’t make me a bad person. Low self-esteem feeds the lies depression tells you, and whilst having low self esteem doesn’t necessarily mean you are depressed, it can definitely be a contributing factor. Learning to love yourself isn’t self-indulgent, and you should never feel guilty about practising self-care.
This list is not definitive, and depression looks different on everyone – this is just my story. If you have one or two of these things it doesn’t necessarily mean you have depression, and equally you can be depressed and not relate to anything on this list.
The point I want to emphasise is that these relatively “mild” symptoms can all add up and have a real impact on your quality of life. You deserve to thrive, and I would urge you to take your mental health just as seriously as you take your physical health. With conditions such physical health problems, we know not to ignore them until we reach crisis point – yet that’s often what happens with mental health problems. You wouldn’t ignore a fracture just because someone else has a broken bone.
If you’re struggling with your mental health, I would urge you to talk to your GP. They can assess your symptoms and make suggestions about lifestyle changes that could help. If necessary, they can refer you to therapy, and discuss medication choices if you are comfortable with that. If you’re a student, your university probably also has a free counselling service that can be really helpful. There’s also Student Minds, a national charity that runs support groups including for one students struggling with mild to moderate depression.
If you need to talk to someone right now, you can call Samaritans 24/7 on 116 123.