I’m a psychiatrist and I live with depression

I am a psychiatrist, and I’ve had depression on and off for most of my adult life. I’m now retired from practice. I’ve written about depression in a book, and people are saying how brave I am to ‘come out’ and say it. Yet if I had written about having arthritis, or some other physical condition, no one would have described my ‘coming out’ in such terms. Why should it be such a surprise that a a person who worked as a consultant psychiatrist for almost 25 years, and has spent her life researching and teaching the subject, should have first hand experience of it herself? Probably because, in the health professions, the last thing we usually want anyone to know, particularly our colleagues, is that we too are vulnerable to exactly the same stresses and problems as our patients. We like to see ourselves as strong; indeed maintaining our position on the career ladder often seems to depend on that. There is stigma related to having depression, even though mental health workers profess that they are always ‘fighting’ it. Depression is something that others suffer from, not us.

It is exactly this ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitude that I set out to challenge in the book. It started off as a memoir of my own fairly extensive treatments for depression, both with medication and psychotherapy. However as I began to write it, the close parallels between my own experiences, and those of the people I had tried to help throughout my professional life just became more and more obvious to me. There certainly wasn’t a clear boundary between my own experiences and those of my former patients. We all had complex lives- experienced loss, grieved for those who have gone from our lives, felt lonely, wanted to be loved, and sometimes felt compelled to self medicate with alcohol to ease our distress. Some of us made the same mistakes in our relationships over and over again. Many of us wanted or even tried to end our lives. The stories I tell in the book are taken from my own work as a psychiatrist but have been extensively altered and merged to create people who are true to life, but not ‘real’ case histories. However my own story is very real indeed. It wouldn’t have been appropriate to have been so open when I was still practising- when people came to see me the focus was rightly on their problems not mine. When I was unwell I withdrew from seeing patients until I was recovered. I’ve never tried to hide my illness from colleagues. I’ve just never been quite so public about it.

So far, I’ve had some interesting reactions. As I mentioned above, I’ve been described as brave by some, but others are still clearly unsure what to say to me. When I’ve talked in the past about treatment, in particular the fact that I’ve taken antidepressants now for the last 20 years, I’ve certainly picked up from some of my colleagues that ‘this isn’t the sort of thing one talks about’. Why not? Isn’t this exactly what mental health professionals talk about every day? How can we challenge stigma in society if we cannot face up to our own tendency to stigmatise both our colleagues and, even now, our patients?

I have listened to junior members of staff describe people with depression who are not actively suicidal, or psychotic as the ‘worried well’. I’ve been told that depression is not a ‘severe’ mental illness warranting more investment of psychiatric and mental health nursing resources. I’ve read articles written by my colleagues, which describe it as ‘medicalising misery’. Only people who have never experienced the pain, despair and hopelessness could talk about depression in such terms. I’ve spent my life challenging such attitudes. I made it as far as being a Professor of Psychiatry, despite repeated episodes of depression. I know I’ve had better treatment than many people ever receive and my aim has always been to improve access to, and quality of care for depression. I’ve managed to live with depression and found ways of coping with it- though that has been far from easy. That is also what my book is about. I refuse to be ashamed of it.

Nobody should be.

My book, ‘The Other Side of Silence: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir of Depression’ is published this week by Summersdale.

29 thoughts on “I’m a psychiatrist and I live with depression

  1. Sirena says:

    I would take a psychiatrist who has experienced depression or any other mental illness over one who had no idea how it feels an no interest in really finding out. Dr’s who talk about the “worried well” and other derogatory and dismissing terms need to check themselves. I really don’t understand why people like that go into the field of psychiatry, if you have no genuine interest in what’s behind the depression and misery, then why not just choose another field of medicine? It makes me really angry to hear of Dr’s spouting such ignorant garbage.

  2. Pam says:

    I am not going to call you brave because having experienced depression myself, I find this comment patronising even though I know it is not intended to be. What I would say is you are being real and making depression real just like arthritis! There is a stigma attached to depression as it is with other mental health/illnesses, having worked in the mental health system myself I also agree with your comment about stigma existing in the MH services, I have also witnessed this first hand. This is not something you would expect from a specialised service, its like a rheumatologist making judgement upon his patients and colleges who develop this condition, implying they are putting on their pain. Then again joints are often disfigured with arthritis, you cant actually see mental health trauma. Good on you for speaking out, everyone who tells their story helps to chip away at the stigma.

  3. Jery Whitworth says:

    Huge kudos to you Linda for your honesty, courage and integrity with sharing your journey so openly. May more professionals choose to authentically do the same; as you have. Again, thank you.

    Cheers!
    Jery

  4. paula wellings 17 red rock street liverpool l65dw england says:

    i am a victim off deppression which then led to psycosis with which i am now diagnosed {which is not a diagnosis because the majority of psychiatrists do not like to diagnose}with schitzophrenia its very hard to live life normally as i used to and alcohol has played a big part in my life as a legal way out of hell it is a legal drug which is available continuosly over the counter which for a moment picks you up from the hell your living its like living inhell voices thoughts racing thoughts imaginative thoughts which are real to you i should write a book on my life then to my life now. reality from an expert. would you read it i have yet to read lindas book if i can concentrate long enough i will but all of you embrace mental health with sympathetic thoughts its like living in hell on earth xxxx

  5. D.B. says:

    Reading this came at such a vital moment. I too am a long standing social care professional and have had ongoing depression.. Generally manageable but on occasions severe. A severe episode several years ago resulted in a poor error of judgement at work after ongoing bullying against me, and my career may now be ended early next year because of this error. So scared and struggling personally, although thankfully not professionally. This article has made me realise I need to fight. Not sure how… but…Thank you.

  6. Monica says:

    I’ve had anxiety and panic attacks and I have been taking antidepressants for 6 months now. I study psychology and this made me ask myself if I am fit for this profession. I came to realize that mental health professionals are human too and having experienced anxiety myself, I can relate to people suffering, as a psychotherapist. Your article gave me hope and reassurance. Thank you!

  7. suesklar says:

    Thank you very much. I am experiencing such a buzz from first hearing you on woman’s hour and then finding your blog. I am currently without meds and suffering I need to be on them but have been so scared off them but the anti psychiatry movement that i got too frightened to take them. I see a psychiatrist in a couple of weeks time and hearing your sane voice has given me courage to take my healing back under my own intuition. I have been very unwell lately.

  8. Sara Jacobovici says:

    Thank you Linda Gask for a very important and well written article. I appreciate your insights, contribution to fighting stigma and your sense of professional boundaries; knowing when to withdraw from treating your patients and when it was the right time to publish your book. It is upsetting to hear of the reactions you received from other professionals. For me it just reflects a bad combination of denial and ignorance. (Characteristics of all professions and certainly not isolated to mental health.) The only point I have difficulty with is the one that misleads one to assume that if a mental health professional has not had first hand experience with a particular challenge then that professional is lacking in treating that challenge. I say misleading because, although you point out that only those negative and ignorant remarks can be made by those who have not had first hand knowledge or experience, there are many who have difficulty working with or trusting a doctor or therapist who hasn’t faced certain challenges. In my work with adult survivors of childhood trauma, I was always asked at the initial meeting if I had experienced childhood trauma. Of course that then became a way through which to begin a dialogue and engage, but there was always a sense that, although I can help in their recovery, I can’t really understand the challenges they were facing as I was not a survivor. As individuals, with unique experiences, none of us can really understand it all, but as humans we share enough common material that makes it possible for us to connect on a meaningful level. Thanks again Linda for an important piece.

  9. Liz Armeson says:

    Wow, this really hit me. It makes perfect sense, I was always intrigued by my depression, and wanted to learn more about it. I can see how a lot of people like me would make the logical step to become psychiatrists in order to better understand it, as well as help others overcome it. This is really powerful, and I’m glad I read it. Thanks for writing.

  10. jeff says:

    I really enjoyed your article, the part about depression not being a severe mental illness I agree with,in the past only when i have been suicidally depressed have i had help off mental health services when i recovered slighted i was discharged and left to my own devices
    advice was given on self care etc. i guess its down to funding and like you say the chronically depressed are often referred to as the worried well. I wish i could say i was a worried well person………

  11. Elphaba says:

    Great post. Looking forward to reading the book. I’d like to write something similar, but I’m 30 years away from retirement so it will have to wait.
    I had BPD, so that’s even less acceptable. I think my experiences allow me to be a more compassionate therapist. But I doubt a lot of people would see it that way.
    I wrote an anonymous article for the Guardian, that will tide me over until I can retire!

  12. ann says:

    I am a mental healtg nurse and have suffered from depression for most of my life with three major episodes and previous inpatient admissions. I ve been managing it well for the past ten years and felt strong enough to come off my antidepressants after 18 years. I was on sertraline 50 mg and tapered it slowly over 4 months. I ve experienced what i feel to be discontinuation symptoms of dizziness , head pain and fatigue. Also anxiety , oversensitivity, irritability and being over emotional. This has gone on for past two months. I wondered linda if you d had experience of this and any advice. I m hoping this isnt my personality that the tablets have been masking all along. I didn disclose my past to my current employers which has made it harder as i cant go off sick or talk to anyone about this for fear of losing my very demanding job. I read your book and it was so good.

  13. lindagask says:

    Hi Ann, I’m afraid I’m not able to give advice. I’m no longer practicing and I couldn’t anyway on here. All I can say is that everyone is different and I have met a few people with more prolonged withdrawal symptoms in the past. My thoughts about coming off my own medication have been to only try it when things are much less stressful. I’ve stayed on for many years because I couldn’t manage the stress of work without them. One day I hope to be able to cut down…

    • ann says:

      Thanks for your response. I wish there was more support around stopping them. Feel very alone with this. I ll probably end up going back on them at this rate. My feeling is taking drugs that are acting on my brain forever is surely going to leave me with some damage/side effects.

  14. Grace says:

    Dear Linda, my husband is a medical head in one of the hospital but he too suffered depression. When I lived with him for a year, he had a severe depression and during that time he got violent and abusive. I cant speak to him or reasoned with him at any point. When he was depressed he will abuse me or his close family members emotionally and mentally. This continued for about 2-3 months until I had to protect myself and my son. We left him and now living separately. Recently he stopped with alcohol and told me he had never have depression since then. Soon he will retire and want me to live with him again but I am doubtful with his illness and he failed to answer my questions about his illness and how to cope with his depression if this similar event happen in the future. He got very upset and avoided my questions and then put the blame back on me. I know my husband is afraid of loosing his license as a doctor if he is found with such illness and he choose to deal with it alone without any medication. However, each and everyone of his family member have to suffer his illness. In hopeless situation.

  15. lindagask says:

    Dear Grace. I’m sorry I’ve taken so long to reply. Your situation sounds very difficult. I cannot provide any advice on here. I can only say it sounds like you need to be able to talk through your own worries about this with someone to work out what is right for you and your son.

  16. Sasha Cohen says:

    Such a wonderful post that is so touching and informative!This is a great blog post. I have been struggling with personal issues for 10 years and have found reaching out online to seek the advice of others has helped me through the good and bad time. I have always had relationship issues and have started to follow the advice of Dr. Robi Ludwig. I saw her on a tv show once and I really appreciated her take on current psychological issues. I have been following her twitter for updates and advice https://twitter.com/drrobiludwig?lang=en

  17. Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC says:

    FYI: I linked this article to one of my own, published on National Depression Screening Day – it looks like you may not have pings enable.
    xx,
    mgh
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMore dot com)
    – ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder –
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

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