How reaching out helped me deal with my depression
As told to Lisa Harvey for BBC Three, by Prasanna Sellathurai
I first noticed I was having mental health problems aged 11. I have a large Sri Lankan family, which means you get to go to lots of weddings, but it also means you go to lots of funerals. So, from a young age, I had a clear sense of death – and a weird sense of what life was, too.
My school was very academically focused and I didn’t really have anything outside of that. I failed my 11+ exams but passed my 13+ to go to a grammar school and, like a lot of the other kids, I did 14 GCSE’s and 6 A-levels. It was pressured, and that was normal, but these pressure points were critical for my mental health.
It felt like an easy thing for me to be depressed. Thoughts would just run away from me – but I never spoke about it. I went to an all-boys school and my friends just wanted to joke around. Depression wasn’t in my vocabulary, or a topic of conversation with other students. I found it difficult to articulate my feelings because I was young and trying to please both teachers and my friends; trying to find that level of acceptance.
I tried to talk to a family member, who quite understandably didn’t know how to respond. They were concerned, but you sort of forget about it – and move on. I think there’s a different sense of cultural attitude towards mental health in Sri Lanka. I might be wrong but with the Sri Lankans that I’ve met, it’s not something they really talk about. Looking back, I never ‘maintained’ my mental health. I was aware of the struggle – it would hit me in a wave – but once it went away, I would just focus on the problems of the day, as opposed to the on-going issues.
Then, when I went to university to study physics, everything came to a head. At uni, you gain independence and spend that first year trying to figure out your new family and new life, when you’ve been so used to your home, family and school life. For me, that invited unresolved emotional issues to bubble to the surface. It was like someone had cranked up the pressure in my body – and I lost it.
I’d run away from social scenarios because I found them too overwhelming. But then I found it hard to be alone in my room. It felt like I was trapped in a vice. My friends would ask me if I was ok, but they didn’t really know what to do. Then one suggested I talk to the assistant senior tutor of my college, which I did. We had regular meetings and they recommended I see a GP and an NHS mental health specialist. I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I felt I was getting proper help from someone who was qualified to give it. I felt like I was being an adult about it, but – I’m not going to lie – I was embarrassed. I’ve always had this knee-jerk to tell a joke and say it’s just a silly thing that’s going on but, actually, it was a very serious thing.
During my second year, my mental health problems escalated to a point where I wasn’t well enough to sit my end-of-year exams. It meant I had to take a year out, which was a setback. Once I came to terms with it, I spun the year into an opportunity to explore my mind. As well as maths and science, I’d always loved art so I stayed in Durham and became a commercial film director, working on narrative shorts, adverts, trailers and music videos, thanks to the societies at my university. That was important because it took me out of that academic world and into a creative one.
I’d been prescribed anti-depressants but that didn’t feel sustainable for me so I came off them during my year out. In the end, two things really worked for me. The first was keeping journals. The NHS mental health specialist suggested I write down and tabulate my thoughts. So I started writing and illustrating different aspects of my day. I still fill them in today – they’re colourful and feel like slices of my brain. When I write in them, the anxiety becomes smaller because I’m slowing my thought process down and that helps control the anxiety and depression. I also ‘see’ patterns, such as how little I ate or slept that day, or other things that might explain the way I’m feeling.
The other thing that was good at helping me overcome my mental health problems was properly opening up about how I felt. Just before I went back to re-take my second year, I think I’d exasperated a couple of my friends and I remember feeling angry and disappointed at myself. I felt people knew I was depressed, but no one would talk about it – plus I was hiding from it. I felt so trapped by my depressive prison that I ended up screaming at the internet at 2am, via a Facebook post.
I wrote along the lines of: “Hello, I don’t write Facebook statuses but I just wanted to say I’ve been struggling with suicidal thoughts. It’s a real struggle.” I added we should be talking more openly about it, and I gave links to mental health charities. I also said I don’t think it’s right that I should be defined like this, before adding a photo someone had taken of me where I looked and felt happy. Then I closed my laptop – and didn’t look at it for about a day.
When I did, there were about 200 likes. But far more meaningful than that, were the comments I received. One girl I’d met in passing had sent me an essay about how incredible the post was; another guy sent me a message – I think he was in a bar at the time – saying how much he loved me. I also got a lot of messages from people saying they’d gone through similar things and were inspired by reading my post. I wrote every message, word for word, down in my journals – even the emojis. I was deeply moved because it was an acknowledgement of support, as opposed to feeling paranoid about what people were thinking about me. It’s a bit of an odd form of therapy doing something like that, but it helped.
Today, I’m in my third year and I’ve kept that honesty going. I did a university podcast interview about mental health and made a short film about anxiety. I still struggle with my mental health – but I don’t give up now. Before, it was easy to let my mind fall down a well. Now, I’m gripping to the sides and climbing up. My mum and dad have also come a long way in learning about anxiety and depression with me. Fighting it is an active process, but I’m more open now. I talk about it with first year students who live around me all the time. At first, I was more comfortable talking to my friends who were girls. But I’ve had one-on-one chats with guys over a cup of tea where they tell me the truth, empathise or understand the struggle.
My advice to anyone feeling like I did at school? Find ways to express yourself –¬ I turned to art and music – and do have an actual conversation about it. Between the ages of 11 and 14, I wouldn’t tell anyone but I also didn’t know it was a thing to be telling people about. Now I see that would have been so helpful. It took me a few years to realise but that Facebook post was me admitting, and taking control of, the thing I was hiding from. Even if that means telling just one person, it can help.
Some people ask me questions about my mental health and say they don’t want to see a GP because they don’t want to waste a doctor’s time: they don’t think their problems are as ‘bad’ as people who have depression. I tell them they’re suffering just as much as me, or have the symptoms of someone who is anxious. It’s why conversations are so important: they give clarity. How we experience being mentally unwell is a bit of a spectrum, which makes it difficult to understand how someone is actually feeling. But being unwell and mentally unwell should be the same thing.
The more I talk about mental health, even though it’s a unique experience for all of us, the more I see that depression is an illness that is often hidden – and you have to delve into it, and look after it, to feel better.
What is depression?
Depression is a low mood that lasts for a long time, and affects your everyday life.
In its mildest form, depression can mean just being in low spirits. It doesn’t stop you leading your normal life but makes everything harder to do and seem less worthwhile. At its most severe, depression can be life-threatening because it can make you feel suicidal.
Where to find support
If you have been affected by anything in this article, visit Young Minds for more information about mental health and how to get support.
It is always good to speak to someone you trust about the issues you might be facing, no matter how big or small. Although it can be hard talking about mental health, it’s something that affects us all, and if you are experiencing difficulties, don’t feel ashamed or different, and don’t feel you have to hide away from it.
Speaking to your GP or health professional can put you in contact with the right people who can help, and the support can be life changing.