He lead Britain to victory in the Second World War and won a Nobel Prize for literature to boot. Not many people, though, know that he suffered recurring depression throughout his life. He called it his “Black Dog” and he would sink into such despair he would spend weeks, sometimes months, in bed, with no energy, no appetite and unable to concentrate. He hated railway platforms or ship railings: he was desperately afraid he would throw himself off.
It is reassuring to know that people can have mental health issues and still have a great life.
The nature of most mental health problems is that they recur but there are things you can do to lessen the odds of a relapse.
Stick to your meds. With schizophrenia in particular, relapses tend to occur most often when people do not adhere to their prescribed medication.
Sleep. Regular, good sleep is so important, but it can be very hard. A few things that help with sleeping are a strict bedtime, avoiding screens (like phones, games and TV) for an hour before bed, no caffeine after midday, allow time for your meal to digest before bed time and keep pets off your bed at night.
Manage stress. It’s good to be busy with things we enjoy, but monitor how you are feeling. We should be prepared to disappoint a few people by saying “No” to them. Their disappointment is better than our burnout. Exercise and fun are vital for giving us resilience and maintaining our mental health!
Skip the drugs. Drug abuse and relapse seem to go together. Sometimes it might be that people feel themselves becoming unwell so they take drugs to feel better, sometimes it might be the drug use that actually brings the episode on. Either way, the drugs make things much worse.
Support. Support might be from professionals or just the social support that comes from family and friends.
Even when you actively do all you can to stay healthy, mental health problems can recur. It can be really dispiriting to realize your own “Black Dog” is coming back for a visit, but here are some tips.
You know the signs. Sometimes a full-blown relapse happens quite suddenly, but often there are signs that, if we spot them, can help us know what we are dealing with. It might be irritability, tiredness, fears, or people becoming concerned about our behaviour, thinking or speech. This time around they are not mysteries, they are signposts that we know how to read.
You know this Black Dog. One of the scariest aspects of becoming mentally unwell is wondering what is going on. It’s no fun getting sick again, but at least we know what we are dealing with. That can take a lot of terror out of the situation. We also know where to get help and what strategies we might need to take regarding work, the care of our children etc.
Remember, this is for a season. We’ve been here before, and we know it passes in time. We have lots of times of wellness between episodes when life is really good.
Remember the strategies that worked last time – they will probably work again.
Get on to it quickly. If we act as soon as we suspect we are sliding into unwellness, we may be able to prevent a full-blown relapse.
You have a crew. Unlike the first time we became unwell, we probably have family, friends and workmates who know you need time, space, support and encouragement.