The slides and audio from my talk are posted below along with some brief notes.
First I want to talk about our industry. Why I think people that are prone to mental health problems are attracted to our industry and also the conditions within our industry that can cause mental health problems.
Phil Stringfellow quote
Mental health affects EVERYBODY and adding an often derogatory term in front of it is another form of segregation – @psdesignuk
I completely understand Phil’s quote. We are not unique. But I do believe that there is a problem in our industry and a need to talk about it. We are an industry that is used to sharing and we need to embrace that to have an open conversation about the problems we experience: professional and personal.
Responses from this year’s Freelance Rates survey show 8% of respondents would describe their mental health/wellbeing as bad or very bad. That is one in every 12 of us. This is not a good thing.
We are a young industry and many of us are pioneers. Many of the people who work on the web – whether creative or technical – are naturally curious and critical. We are interested in picking things apart and solving problems but this can turn on itself and mean we become self-critical.
I think one problem in our industry is our high exposure to information. We are at the coal face and many of us work and play online. For some we became attracted to working on the web through a hobby and personal interest and that makes it very hard to take or make time away from what we do.
I want now to talk about some of my experiences of depression, how I understand mental health problems and how it has affected me.
This is a photo of me and my mother in the dim and distant past. My mother has a blood disorder called lupus. Lupus can be defined a number of ways but the way it was always explained to me was that the white blood cells which are supposed to fight infection cannot differentiate between bad things and good things. They attack the host and something aimed at good – fighting illness – becomes bad. Friendly Fire.
This is how I see depression. One of my greatest assets – my brain – has been an incredibly force for good in my life. It got me through a degree, MA and PhD in archaeology, it helped me move careers to the web and helped me overcome many challenges in our industry. However my brain – like lupus – has turned on itself.
It is this sense of being analytical and critical which has underpinned my depression. By putting my own life under very intense scrutiny. Always.
Depression is a selfish disease. It puts the self under intense scrutiny – comparing ourselves to others, focussing on our weaknesses, insecurities and failures. But this very often goes hand-in-hand with a sense of not indulging ourselves. We don’t want to treat ourselves (or alternatively fall into ‘binges’ of _treat_ment, whether that is spending, eating, tweeting, whatever) and don’t want to burden others with our problems. This is a conversation we would often rather keep to ourselves.
The thing to remember about depression is that it is a lens or filter rather than reality. It is how we perceive ourselves and others. Like the seventies lens filters of Instagram, depression is a state or sense of altered reality with distorted edges, slightly blurry bits and the occasional bokeh.
I want to spend the rest of my talk discussing some of the strategies available for coping with mental health problems. Some have helped me, others haven’t. All are worth considering.
Speak to a professional
First and foremost speak to a medical professional. Go to a doctor and see what they can do for you. You wouldn’t put off going to a GP if your leg was in pain or you had a nasty rash. It should be the same for mental health problems. For many people depression is a chemical problem that can be managed chemically. I’ve been on anti-depressants for almost a year and tried several versions. At first I was too proud to go on medication for my depression – I was worried about the potential side effects and felt I would be a failure if I couldn’t fix this problem by myself. I was referred to an NHS counsellor for 6 short sessions where we discussed strategies to help manage the way I felt myself. It didn’t work.
I read Philip Robert’s brilliant post on his experiences of depression and medication and it really gave me the confidence to consider anti-depressants. I now take Sertraline and have a regular consultation with a medication specialist.
Talk to Somebody
You cannot underestimate the value in talking to somebody about our problems. That can be a friend, a family member or a complete stranger. After feeling like I barely scratched the surface of my illness with an NHS counsellor about six months ago I got in touch with a private counsellor who I now have weekly sessions with.
It is immensely powerful to be able to offload to somebody who is not invested in what you are saying, somebody to be non-critical and also guide conversation to help us better understand ourselves. You can find a BACP-accredited therapist online and if you cannot find somebody please contact The Samaritans.
Get away from a Screen
It is really important with so much of our work and recreation taken up online to spend time away from a screen. Go for a walk or take up aerobic exercise such as cycling or swimming. It also exposes us to sunlight which is a valuable way of naturally boosting serotonin.
Also find a hobby – Adam talked about the importance of flow earlier. Of getting into a zone. I started helping out on a local spoon carving workshop and it has been immensely valuable in taking my mind off things. Painting, knitting, crafting are all things that can help us achieve mental flow and switch off the mind.
Watch what you eat
Caffeine is a natural stimulant and chemically alters our brain. Like all drugs we can quite easily build up a chemical dependence on the responses that it triggers. I gave up caffeine in a bid to manage some of the negative aspects of my depression, particularly fatigue and mood swings and it has really helped. And giving up caffeine doesn’t mean you have to give up good coffee! I heartily recommend Lavazza decaffeinated coffee
Another thing that I have been experimenting with the past few months is trying to cut sugar out of my diet. Potatoes not Prozac is a really interesting book that discusses sugar dependency and the symptoms that can manifest with high-sugar diets. The book advocates cutting out sugars and simple carbohydrates replacing these with protein rich foods and complex carbohydrates. A recommended read.
Turn off notifications. Keep your phone on silent. Don’t take your phone to bed with you. Try and minimise distractions in your life and try to step away from the “micro refresh hits” http://vimeo.com/56479210 that give you a short dopamine boost but then lead to big crashes.
Turn it off and on again
Finally try turning off from time to time. When there are too many tasks running on a computer and we see the spinning beach ball we restart it. We are used to turning technology off and on again to fix it. But how many times do we do this for ourselves. As a birthday present recently my wife booked me on a surprise weekend in a monastic retreat. For me this was a restart – a charge to unplug and unwind from work, the internet and my family and devote some time in just resetting things. We need to make time for such experiences.