I am normally extremely reticent to talk about my depression, in fact most people don't know I suffer from it and certainly not to the extent that I do. I'm quite open about my disability, I had to be, I ended up being a wheelchair user for a few years, although I am now up and walking again. But the depression I have suffered from since I was a teenager? No, that has been something I have hidden at all costs. I have chronic long-term depression, now lasting many years.
It took seeing Voice's coverage of Mental Health Day with Young Minds last week to reach out to my manager (I work for the company who runs Voice) to say that I was struggling at the moment, but also that I wanted to talk about how the arts help me manage my depression. Getting help with depression at an early stage means you are less likely to suffer from it longer term. If you are struggling, please reach out for help now.
I believe creating is exceedingly hard when you are in a depressive phase, it makes you insular, not to mention thinking how rubbish you are all the time. Add in lethargy and a general sense that getting out of bed is going to take every single ounce of energy that you have, and you're left devoid of creative ideas, and the motivation to get on and do them. Creating is inherently about taking risks, and trying new things is an anathema to depression.
Having said that, I use two artistic practices to look after my mental health, as part of my wider programme of staying well.
I do not live in the Surrey Hills, or an Area of Outstanding Beauty. I live in a liminal place which is a mixture of suburbs, industrial, post-industrial, wasteland, countryside. Everywhere is the sound of the M25/A13 roaring away. I made a conscious choice to look for something beautiful, odd juxtapositions, the interaction between humans and space and the unusual. Then I photograph these in the best possible way using my iPhone. I walk everyday (I have a dog - I'll be writing about him in a couple of days) and I actively look for these things as I am out and about.
Noticing your surroundings means you are engaged with where you are right now - it is an active practice of mindfulness. Looking for beauty, even unconventional beauty, means I seek good things, and more often than not I am then grateful for having seen them. I often joke that I don't have rose-tinted glasses, I wear Ray-Bans all the time leading me to jump to negative conclusions, or see the worse in every situation. This practice of mindfulness and gratitude lifts my mood and has, over years, helped me to remove those dark tinted glasses, for most of the time at least.
This act each day, and sharing on social media for a while, helps me to stay in the present, rather than ruminating on negative thoughts. Over time it has built my confidence as a photographer, I bought a proper camera and I was asked to take part in an artist mentoring programme earlier in the year - complete with my first proper exhibition and the money to print all my images. I am building my business as a photographer.
This has all stemmed from my daily practice of photography mindfulness and gratitude.
As an adult I took up learning the flute again. I did grade 1 as a child, but never progressed beyond that. I made a conscious decision that I wanted to improve my flute, so I got a teacher and worked on my grades. Practicing every day, regardless of how I felt helped me to recover my sense of self when I got extremely ill a few years ago. I joined a concert band and I started to improve even quicker. Being in a band means that I want to practice because I don't want to let my band-mates down in a concert.
Depression has a tendency to make you feel isolated and alone. It makes you do things like cancel seeing your friends. I don't cancel my band rehearsal, because I don't want to let my fellow flautists down. This means I see people and generally have a good time at rehearsals as we are a very friendly bunch regardless of how I felt when I left home.
According to research, one of the key ways of improving your happiness is to undertake a challenge and to improve at something. Working towards my grades means I am, over months, getting better. There are times when I hear myself and think I am actually quite good! Last year when I was really struggling to understand Grade 5 Theory I got a huge amount of encouragement from my band mates, both in person and on Facebook. They helped build my confidence and I passed the exam! As I write this I am waiting for the exam date for my Grade 6 which will be sometime in November. To say I was Grade 3 a few years ago this is a huge improvement.
I get a huge buzz from performing in concerts with the band, I have made some excellent friends who I see outside of band and I am on the committee too. Relationships help to improve happiness and I get that a lot from the band.
I bought myself a ukulele, which I personally think is the happiest sounding instrument in the world, I am using an app called Yousician to learn to play it. The app works like Guitar Hero in that you play along, there are worldwide challenges with a leader board and it is so much fun. I also got a djembe and go to drumming circles, which I also love.
Moodling about on an instrument makes me happy, practicing my flute with an outcome in mind - such as an exam or performance makes me happy in the long term, even if I resent doing my scales on a daily basis.
Please don't get me wrong, I am not saying the arts are a cure for depression, but my practice helps create a life where it is harder for depression to take a hold, and gives me healthy coping mechanisms for those times when I fall into the pit.
What about you? Do you use the arts to help with your depression?