“The nice middle class boy who went to the grammar school, has all the nice holidays and lives in suburbia, how can he suffer from a mental illness? Well it is possible, it can affect any of us.”
So begins the very sincere, impassioned account of Lisburn man Stuart Hughes’ experience with depression, as described in a blog he recently posted.
The 23-year-old trainee associate at PricewaterhouseCoopers has spoken out about what it’s like to be affected by mental health issues with the hope of helping other people - particularly young men - who may be in the same situation.
“I think it can be dangerous if you don’t talk to people, and that was mainly the purpose of writing my blog,” says the softly-spoken Ulster Unionist member.
“Just talking to people, and the perspective that somebody else can bring, does help.”
Stuart’s own experience with poor mental health began when he was a teenager at Friends School in Lisburn. He was around 16 at the time and believes that it stemmed “mostly from a lack of self-esteem and self-worth.”
He records in his blog: “A confidence to speak up in class and particularly on the political issues of the day was not matched by a confidence to speak up in a social circumstance. This is something that I still struggle with to this day, particularly with women. I am not ashamed to say this, it is the way I am and it has had a massive impact on my life.”
In another almost tear-jerking extract, he goes on: “I have been in tears in my bed, in bars, in places of education and many others. I have went to sleep hoping I do not wake up in the morning. Why have I felt this way? I don’t know and I probably never will. I just wanted to be the same as every other person growing up that I knew, with the girlfriend, the degree and everything else that is expected of us. I’ve been on and off medication as well and sometimes it helps and sometimes it doesn’t. What has helped is talking. Talking with friends has helped me understand my problems and also realise that I was never alone. Despite at times feeling incredibly lonely.
“I hope by writing this piece I will encourage others to come forward and deal with the problems that they may face.”
It’s no surprise that Stuart’s blog has already struck a chord with a number of people who have come forward and contacted him to say they know exactly how he feels.
He tells me that on the outside, many people who do know him would find it possibly difficult to believe he suffers from mental health issues.
“If you asked a lot of people about me, they might say I’m pretty confident and articulate in certain situations,” he says. “It’s more in social situations that I have to keep up a facade.”
Trying to pinpoint exactly how depression feels, Stuart said: “It’s like feeling dark and unhappy, and the major thing is how draining it is, because for me I was always trying to hide the way I felt from people, and that takes a lot of energy. For me, my depression flares up when I’m not doing anything and my mind’s not active.
“So for example the moments when you’re alone or lying in bed before you fall asleep, or if you’re by yourself on a weekend and not doing anything.
“However I think if you asked 10 different people how they felt they would give you 10 different answers. But I think I used a line in the blog where I said it’s going to sleep and not wanting to wake up, and that is maybe the best way to describe how I felt.”
Stuart said that it could also be triggered by throwaway remarks made by people, even perhaps meant in jest.
“What people don’t realise is that the smallest things can have the biggest impact on you - perhaps someone says something in a jokey way, but to you it hurts.”
Stuart says he was lucky to have the support of good friends, even when he was at school, and he found the confidence to approach the school nurse. He was then referred for counselling.
“For me, I had to get confidence in talking to my friends about it all before I could talk to strangers. I had to feel confident admitting that there was something wrong.
“The medical advice is to see a doctor straight away, but it’s not always that straightforward, particularly if you’re young and relatively healthy and you don’t really have a relationship with a GP or any sort of medical practitioner.
“And it can be difficult for people to admit they have a problem. People can be stubborn and that’s just a fact of life.”
Stuart believes that it is “undoubtedly” more difficult for men to speak openly about depression than it is for women.
“It’s just the way society in general is, men aren’t supposed to speak openly about their feelings. I think particularly in Northern Ireland, we have a very acute problem. This was one of my major motivations, to try and get people to talk.”
In terms of his own ‘recovery’ Stuart has accepted that there will be certain times that he will feel a certain way.
For him, it’s about taking life one day at a time.