I took a long time to get started in adult life. After university and a false start in London I took off and travelled in South America. I was 23. When I came back, a year later, I was rich in experience but still poor in purpose and direction.
I wanted to lead a creative life but had no idea how to go about it. I had also strayed into a bad situation at home. While I was away my father had remarried, disastrously as it turned out. I didn’t know who I was or where I was going. I was confused about my relationship with the girlfriend I’d been travelling with. I began to suffer from panic attacks and general anxiety.
In desperation, and with an introduction from my father, I signed up with a firm of Edinburgh solicitors to start my articles. But they couldn’t take me until the spring, a few months off. By way of another family connection (it was all so easy in those days) I got a temporary job in Aberdeen, where I’d studied, working over the winter for an oil service company.
But the loneliness – my student friends had all moved on, the long dark winter nights, and the work itself, supervising squads of dockers as they loaded and unloaded the supply vessels that served the rigs, pulled me into a downward spiral. My girlfriend came up to visit me and suddenly it all seemed too much. I downed tools and fled to my mother and stepfather in Edinburgh.
They took me in, of course, but looking back on it now, none of us knew how to talk about what was going on. I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what amounted to a breakdown, and they didn’t know the questions to ask. They sent me to the family doctor, elderly, tweedy and bespectacled. I remember sitting in his large panelled consulting room in Heriot Row as he looked me in the eye and asked me: ‘Are you pulling your weight?’
What did he mean? I still don’t really know to this day. At the time I presumed he meant financially, to which the answer, up until a few days previously, had been Yes. But maybe he meant something entirely different, such as was I making a proper contribution to family life, or to society at large… Whatever he meant, it seemed a strange and baffling question to a depressed, anxious 24-year-old.
It would be quite wrong to suggest that that time of my life was all misery. It wasn’t. There was plenty of excitement and fun, too. It’s easy, nevertheless, to underestimate the enormous task at that age of figuring out who we are; the uncertainty, the emotional and psychological stress, the expectations that go with becoming an adult. Most people get through it, but not everyone does.
A young family friend of my friend and colleague, Stuart Delves, took her own life last year at the age of 21. She was a gifted dancer with a loving and supportive family, yet when she was in extremis she was let down by the mental health professionals who, it seems, failed to take her seriously.
Stuart’s wife, Catriona Taylor, is an artist, theatre director and film-maker. Their two children, Caitlin and Jamie, were close friends of the young dancer and both are also involved in film. At Jamie’s suggestion they have decided to make an awareness-raising documentary, entitled Careless, about how mental health services serve young people.
This important and touching family project is being crowd-funded. Please visit the website (here) to hear Catriona talking about the documentary and see footage of their enchanting young friend – who might still be dancing today had she been properly listened to when it mattered.
God, Jamie, this is so complex. I know a young man in serious trouble. He refuses to accept help or take medication prescribed. He won’t go to counselling.
There are people I’ve known for decades who, I know, behind my back tell other friends “Paul’s not bipolar” in an exasperated way that suggests I’m just looking for attention (despite the fact that I never told a soul until eight years ago about my 30-year-old diagnosis).
So that’s the first of the two biggest problems we have with mental health. It’s still shameful, misunderstood and/or taboo. The second big problem is money.
Something like one and a half million people in the UK are taking some form of anti-depressant (it’s a hard figure to pin down).
For each of those people to access skilled counselling (I emphasise the word ‘skilled’ having personally experienced lazy, cliched approaches) we need at least 60,000 counsellors nationwide just to provide a minimum weekly session to known sufferers.
And they need to be properly concentrated on the most afflicted areas because there are geographic areas of high concentration of sufferers.
None of this, of course, addresses the hordes of young people struggling in the dark. The very least anyone needs is to understand they have a problem and to seek help. But that then assumes that all GPs will be skilled in identifying the problem and directing the patient to the right kind of help. They patently are not.
I don’t want to discourage the documentary makers, but another documentary about “the problem” isn’t really what’s needed. A documentary that identifies the scale of what’s required to address “the problem” and proposes solutions would be a first (in my experience) and would achieve far greater impact. I’d put money that such a documentary could attract at least the participation (an interview, a comment, an endorsement) from someone like Nick Clegg who is vociferous on “the subject” but has so far been woefully impractical in his proposed solutions.
Jamie. Your blog should come with a warning. Do not read if you are using heavy equipment, carrying babies or getting out of the shower. There are times early Friday morning when I read your blog that everything around me disappears including the dripping wet slippery floor. This is one of those days. Raw, honest, simple, revealing storytelling with a purpose and a point.
“Pass me the mop Dear. I have been reading A Few Kind Words again.”
Your blog, as so often it does, caused a swirl of memories and emotions to erupt like a geyser…
As a late bloomer, I wasn’t ready for uni (even had I obtained sufficent A-level grades to go) and so went to live in the USA for 2 years. Like you, Jamie, though a few years younger (21), I returned “rich in experience but still poor in purpose and direction.” I thought that I might have a calling to ordained minitry in the Chirch of England but was certain that it was something that should not happen until my thirties. The result was that I spent a year unemployed before falling into a job in Local Government that no one else wanted and in which I was to spend 8 unhappy years before finally escaping to University (where my student grant was higher than my net salary had been). But, feeling secure about who I was and where I was ultimately going, I married and had two children (which was part of what was entrapping me) during that time. As you so aptly put it, “It would be quite wrong to suggest that that time of my life was all misery. It wasn’t. There was plenty of excitement and fun, too.”
My father, as you know, was a manic-depressive (as they called it back in those days) who refused treatment as, in his normal depressed state, he said he did not need it and would not listen to anyone during one of his “highs”, which my grandparents dealt with by shipping him off abroad. He was, as is common in his illness, an alcoholic, and this was another reason he refused treatment. As his episodes became increasingly frequent as we grew older (he could not handle teenagers at all), my mother found she was unable to cope with 4 children aged between 7 and 13 and my father’s often bizarre behaviour and their marriage collapsed under the strain. We never knew whether his illness was hereditary (one of my great-grand uncle’s biographers ahs suggested that he was bi-polar) or caused by his childhood and teenage experiences. I was throughout my teens worried that it might be herditary and would end up like him.
My own breakdown came at school through a mixture of intense physical and psychological bullying and a deteoriating home life as my parents careened towards the inevitable divorce. I was fortunate that the school doctor was my family GP and intervened immediately to restabilise me and make the teachers aware of what had been going on and thus watch out for me. My parents’ divorce meant that I was removed from the school at the end of the school year as my mother fled to Surrey to escape the gossip thus preventing a reoccurrence.
Many years later, I managed a mental health project that helped people find work, not in secure locations but in the mainstream, following discharge from hospital. I have nothing but respect for those who passed through the project. But as paulmarkphillips says, money is a huge problem – the authorities would rather pretend that the problem doesn’t exist or is unimportant rather than allocate funding.
In common with other commenters, there is so much here that I recognise. Thank you for writing it. Rather than recounting why it resonated so deeply, I feel the best way to respond is to head over to Kickstarter and help make this project a reality. Thanks Jamie.
I missed last week’s ‘Kind Words’ having been on a trip to Madrid with my siblings, Mother and Aunts and am just reading the thread now via Stuart’s post this morning. I can’t tell you how resonant the conversation is – last Sunday morning, while I was dozing in a sunny hotel room, my husband phoned me to let me know that his (our) 32 year old nephew had taken his own life in a quiet corner of a park in Edinburgh. We don’t understand why – or at least can’t pinpoint the one thought or happening which caused him to go over the edge. It’s so utterly tragic when a young life is lost in this way – dischordant and unnatural. And you feel so helpless! I’m looking forward to viewing the ‘Careless’ movie at home tonight…and will share it with my family-in-law when the time is right.