Rosamund McCarthy: Dealing with the black dog

One person in four will suffer poor mental health, and the front-line work of charities must be backed by state services, says our columnist

Rosamund McCarthy
Rosamund McCarthy

A few weeks ago I had a bad dose of the black dog.

This is a state of mind I thought I had largely defeated. In my early thirties, I often found myself in a dark state, cut off from friends and help. In the verse of Christina Rossetti, I longed to be "sleeping at last, the trouble and tumult over/sleeping at last, the struggle and horror past". So it was a shock to feel something of the same vulnerability. I thought my depression was a thing of the past.

As a lawyer, I find it difficult to admit to these feelings. Will I be seen as less reliable or less professional? That's my fear, even though I am standing in judgement on myself. Yet the plain fact is that one in four people reading this column will suffer a mental health problem at some point in their lives. Even writing this statistic makes me feel less isolated.

The Time to Change campaign by Rethink and other mental health charities sought to challenge the discrimination people with mental illness face. The stigma of mental health affects all areas of life, from the chances of finding work, which will become much more acute in a recession, to forming relationships and accessing goods and services.

Poor mental health affects about eight million people in the UK at any one time. It should be something we can talk about openly and honestly. But many sufferers feel inhibited because of underlying feelings of shame or fear. Even though the readers of Third Sector are likely to be sympathetic, it is difficult for me to write about this subject. That is the case despite the fact that I work with great colleagues and a number of my friends work in adult mental health; so no wonder mental distress remains a taboo.

Time to Change also revealed that the stigma can inhibit sufferers from seeking help. This is very sad, because once the decision has been made to ask for help, many charities offer support and information - Mind, the Depression Alliance and the Samaritans, to name but three.

It took a crisis for me to face up to the fact that I needed help. My recovery took a holistic approach - a mixture of counselling, living in a monastery, writing poetry, working part time and, yes, calling charity helplines. The Samaritans do answer the telephone in the middle of the night - an amazing and life-saving fact. Not all mental health issues can be resolved by charities, however, and the role of the state in ensuring relevant services is vital. It remains to be seen whether GP commissioning will hinder appropriate joined-up care and support.

Mental health could lose out in the battle for resources, and charities are lobbying to keep these services high on the policy agenda. All power to your collective elbows. While the influencing and advocacy work of charities is important, user groups and mutual support are crucial. If you are the one in four who is currently suffering then, if it is of some comfort, you are not alone.

- Rosamund McCarthy writes in a personal capacity. Rosamund McCarthy is a partner in law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite

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