How I Became an Accidental Advocate for Mental Health
Mental health awareness is a trending topic these days, in a gross kind of way, if you ask me. I notice many well-intentioned people saying the right things, sharing the right memes, and spreading the right inspirational messages on social media. Hashtag “end the stigma” is everywhere you look, as is the overall mental health awareness campaign. The campaign reminds people to check in on their friends — even the ones who smile all the time. The cynical British part of me hates that stuff even if it is well intentioned. I can’t help thinking it is self-serving to those who post it for all the world to see.
When I was in my darkest moments of depression, anyone could have asked me how I was and they still wouldn’t know I was contemplating the quickest pain-free way to die. I could pretend all day that I was fine, no problem.
I think anyone who has suffered serious depression would agree that if you are in the darkest part of a hole the last thing you want to do is talk about it. Especially with people you know and love, no matter how many well-intentioned social media posts they share on your feed.
So I had a dark cloud following me around for some years. A thick fog in my mind that corrupted my thoughts and convinced me it was all worthless, everyone is fake (including myself), and that my life was pointless. Why would I want to admit that to anyone? It was much easier to pretend everything was fine. And if they were persistent, I’d just say something dismissive like, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, it’s too hard to explain.”
Don’t get me wrong, mental health awareness and ending the stigma are noble causes, but it’s not that easy to help those in the grips of crippling depression. They won’t all talk about it — at least not until after the fact, for many.
Most people who have depression seem to go through it in waves. It comes and goes sometimes for days, sometimes it can last months or years. Even after a wave passes, the fog is lifted and one resumes some mindful clarity, it still feels like catastrophic human failure. After the wave passed for me, I felt like I had failed in the simplest functions of being a human. And who wants to admit they are a failure at life? Especially in this modern age, the age of public shaming and outrage. Everyone else appears to be happy and content while I’ve been thinking about swallowing the end of a shotgun barrel.
For me, it started in 2014. That year was by far my worst wave of depression ever. Full-on suicidal contemplation and listening-to-Johnny-Cash-at-3 a.m. levels of total darkness. At that time, I had been chasing a life defined by status, my career, and my income, which had all left me sitting on a rock jetty in Newport Beach with a hand gun pressed to my temple. I didn’t have the courage to be a coward that night and thankfully ended up back in the light some months later where I began writing a book as a creative outlet. I called it The Average Surfer’s Guide to Travel, Waves and Progression, using it to touch on my mental health struggles, the lessons I had learned about life balance, and the importance of prioritizing one’s passions. For me, that passion is surfing.
The book itself was received well in the surf community but surprisingly, it was regarded more for its message about mental health awareness than the act of riding waves. Ironically, I had no idea this was what I was writing about but the “Thank You” emails started coming in nonetheless. I didn’t understand. Yes, I had written bluntly and honestly but I had written for me, no one else.
I had evolved as a person in the years leading up to that book and my depression was one of the biggest factors in creating my new mindset. It had helped shape me, so why would I leave that out? I had to write about it. It had been the most defining part of my life for four years, so writing a story based on personal experience wouldn’t make sense without the depression that shaped it.
What I quickly learned was that a lot of people could relate and a lot of people had their own story about depression and mental health. So many had experienced it but so few spoke about it. Was I naive for not knowing this? Was I naive for putting it all out there?
Then came the most shocking email of all from one of my best friends in the world.
Someone I had grown up with. He told me he’d been up to Beachy Head, a famed suicide spot in England, and he had written a note for his wife and kids, ready to end his life.
My eyes were opened as I read similar stories from other people, every one of them in pain but seemingly happy to read something relatable to their own struggles. This is such a serious epidemic for us all, especially young men in their 20s and 30s (and even 40s).
At this point, I began to worry about my credentials. Who was I to be any kind of advocate for this? I’m not a therapist or a mental health expert. I just have my own experiences to draw on and share. I was worried about people thinking I had a cure. In fact, ironically, the minute I finished writing my book the depression came back. It was a lighter version of those waves but there it was nonetheless. The old familiar cloud above me. No Johnny Cash at 3 a.m. this time, just a feeling of worthlessness and pointlessness. The only difference this time was I understood it better. I treated it like a message to myself to reevaluate what was making me happy and unhappy and it passed after two months. I feel like I am one of the luckier ones.
I now have a less cynical view of all those mental health posts floating through my feed on social media. I’ve learned that talking about it does work for some and reading about it does too. We all find comfort when we can relate to one another.
For me, creative outlets like surfing and writing are a big part of finding happiness. Life is so often filled with stress, responsibility, and societal demands. And in my case, the only things that could balance that scale were my creative passions. So while I still don’t have a cure for depression, my advice for anyone suffering from it would be to find some creative passions of your own. If you don’t have any, expose yourself to new things and prioritize the effort to do so. Prioritize your passions and your life as much as you do your bills, work, and responsibilities. These are not fringe activities to be done in your spare time, they’re necessities for your health and wellbeing. So go out and learn to dance, surf, paint, write, sing, play an instrument. Do anything. Whatever it is, let it balance your scale.