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When my depression started it was the most physical event of my life, the sensation was like a sharp knife cleaving my brain in half and the feeling of being drained through the soles of my feet.
I was a GP at the time and had been feeling increasingly stressed for the previous 12 months or so, with a plethora of fleeting, yet consistently unpleasant and worrying physical symptoms – mostly gut-related.
I took six months off to deal with my depression in 1986. Everyone in my practice was wonderfully supportive and understanding and I learned a lot about what matters in life.
Relationships and actions had no meaning, leaving only an increasingly exhausted will and lifeless body to force through the motions of day-after-day pointlessness. It also felt like a bereavement, because I had lost my fun-loving and compassionate self.
My psychiatrist was brilliant. His first intervention was a home-visit the very day I had to stop work on which he gave me a huge non evidence-based hug (he was a bear of a man) and told me he had every hope of my excellent recovery.
He said: ‘We will help you put your armour back on, Chris,’ and I knew even in the depth of my sheer fear and hopelessness, that he meant it. I was given hope and the expectation of recovery right from the start.
His support was unstinting and regular. He treated all his patients like this, with frequent visits and cups of tea and diverting conversations about medical dissidents in Russia.
My community psychiatric nurse, Tony, visited me every day, often for up to an hour during the first weeks, once again, tea, biscuits and a walk round the garden were de rigueur.
Recovery takes time and as is often stated is a journey not a destination. In terms of my life and work since 1986, I have learned that you get experience the day after you need it. This is precisely why caring and experienced others are so important in all our lives, especially during periods of distress and illness when our own resources can desert us.
I left general practice in 1999 to work in the mental health third sector, becoming chair of Depression Alliance and setting up the charity Primary Care Mental Health and Education.
I have enduring concern for the health and wellbeing of medical students, doctors and their training in the interventions and practices that will help them to look after themselves for life. Sometimes I wonder if I went into medicine to sort myself out; I do view my ‘version’ of depression as not just a cluster of symptoms or syndrome, but a necessary catharsis to enable ‘me’ to throw out a lot of unrequired junk. I have been even more productive since, which is why I believe that every life is precious and there is always hope.
I hope that as you read this, you will reflect on your own health and its importance to your life and work.
It was my experience of depression that led me to do what I did next in life and I cannot over-emphasise enough the importance of feeling held by compassionate and competent people at such a time. This is why I support the U Can Cope NHS Change Day pledge (see below).
If we can help the most vulnerable in their hour of need and our training and services are designed to help us to do so, then we can help anyone.
Chris Manning is chair of the faculty for mental health at the College of Medicine, a charity which promotes holistic, patient-centered healthcare, and director of UPstream Healthcare.
He was writing in favour of the pledge made for NHS Change Day on March 3 by the U Can Cope campaign, which is supported by Connecting with People, an organisation that provides free online resources and training in building emotional resilience, mental health awareness and suicide awareness.
The pledge says: ‘I pledge to develop my wellbeing and emotional resilience and encourage those around me to do the same.’
Dr Manning can be contacted at: [email protected]
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