Depression crept up on David, and a 10-year cycle of breakdowns and recovery soon took its toll. But discovering the impact that volunteering could have on his mental health transformed his outlook
I think I had been depressed for well over a year before I had any idea what was really happening. It was 2004, and I was still at art school in Blackpool, the seaside town where I grew up. There was no triggering event as such, it just crept up on me, slowly building up in the background before it eventually completely took over.
By early 2005, when I was half way through the third year of my degree, things had become so bad that I decided to see my doctor about it. He prescribed me some antidepressants and sent me on my way.
I eventually scraped through college and got a summer job as a conductor on Blackpool’s famous trams. That was when I had my first major breakdown. I had to leave my job and rely on family handouts, as for some reason I wasn’t eligible to claim any benefits. I was left alone in my flat with no job, no money, and no hope of recovery.
A year later, I moved in with my sister and her family in Essex. It was hard going at first, but I eventually got a part-time bar job, and even made some new friends. Things seemed to be getting better for a while, but another year down the line I had a breakdown. I was making cocktails in Sheffield at the time, and again had to give up everything and return to my sister’s house to recover.
This two-year cycle of breakdowns and recovery continued for almost 10 years of my life, with the breakdowns getting more severe and the recovery taking longer and longer each time.
Living with my parents, with a job in a local pub I liked, and enjoying photography again, in 2014 things seemed to be going my way finally – I even had a girlfriend. The depression was still there, but I learned what my limits were, and gave my condition the attention it needed.
But again, things didn’t stay this way and, unfortunately, towards the end of the year, I was spending more time off sick than at work. One day I had a breakdown so severe that my parents had to take me to the hospital. After waiting in A&E for three hours, I was given a handful of diazepam and sent home.
By the end of the year I had to leave my job, and sell all my photography gear and my record collection for some income. I spent the first half of 2015 recovering, and just as I was starting to feel better, I was sent for a ‘Fit For Work Assessment’. Shortly after, my benefits were stopped, and I was forced into a job I couldn’t do at a nearby supermarket, which really saw my mental health plummet as I had suicidal thoughts. By 2016 I was back to square one and had to begin my recovery again. This time though, I had some help.
By the spring of 2017, my voluntary work had already made a vast improvement to my mental health and wellbeing
I contacted the excellent Therapy For You service – a free NHS counselling and talking therapies service for people in south Essex – and began to attend some of their seminars. I also enrolled on their first ever Wellbeing Workshop, which was a weekly group therapy session where we would discuss our individual situations and set ourselves personal goals. Hearing the individual stories in the workshop was very inspiring, and I set myself the goal of finding some voluntary work in my local community.
My first role was at my local library, providing one-to-one computer skills tuition. For a lot of people, the internet is a scary place, so I found the role very rewarding and enjoyed watching the students’ confidence grow each week.
After a short while the library was starting a weekly children’s chess club and were looking for volunteers to help. Every Saturday, a dozen or so local kids would come in – it was amazing to see how quickly they took to it. I would walk around and answer any questions they had, or offered advice of moves they could make. If an odd number of kids showed up, I would sit in and have a game – it’s quite embarrassing to be beaten at chess by an 11-year-old!
In October of 2016, I also began volunteering for a local disability website called Dancing Giraffe. It’s a news and local resource site for disabled people in Essex, and is run completely by volunteers. At first my role was to write up news stories each week – anything from uplifting charity fundraising stories to mental health issues, or advancements in technology. After a few months I became their content editor, which involved proofreading and uploading articles to the website.
By the spring of 2017, my voluntary work had already made a vast improvement to my mental health and wellbeing. I felt better than I had in years, but I thought some fresh air and exercise would make me feel even better. Since my early 20s I had enjoyed going for long walks in the countryside, so I saved up what little money I had and bought myself some walking boots and a pair of binoculars, and visited some of the local bridleways and nature reserves. It felt great to be out among the birds and the trees.
The nearest nature reserve to where I live is a patch of woodland on the edge of Hanningfield Reservoir, near Chelmsford in Essex. It’s run by the Essex Wildlife Trust, and has a lovely visitor’s centre with a nice view over the water. The centre is run by volunteers, so I soon offered my services, and by the start of the summer I was working there two afternoons a week. My dad bought me a second-hand bicycle, so I could cycle the three miles from town down the country lanes which, along with my new role with the Wildlife Trust, had huge benefits to my fitness and mental health. The voluntary work was great, I would greet the visitors, sell ice creams to families, and chat to people about birds.
By January 2018, things really started going well for me. In January I was offered a job with the Wildlife Trust. The part-time hours suited me well, as my depression robs me of a lot of energy. I was living the dream – I got to hang out with my new friends in a beautiful place and got paid for it.
Volunteering in my local community, and setting myself productive and achievable goals, really has changed my life
Having accomplished the goal I set myself back at the Wellbeing Workshop, I set myself another; to publish my book. I had started writing about my mental health in 2013 as a creative and rewarding way to try to understand my condition. After a while, I started to really enjoy the process and was getting some good feedback, so I started to work on a memoir of my time at art school, when my depression first appeared. It took a long time and there were long periods where I didn’t feel up to it, but by November I had a finished book called How Depression Ruined My Life, and published it with Amazon.
I have lived with depression for nearly 15 years now and I have to say that volunteering in my local community, and setting myself productive and achievable goals, really has changed my life.
Rav Sekhon | BA MA MBACP (Accred), says:
David’s true story really highlights the struggle of suffering with depression, and the debilitating impact that it can have on our lives. Thankfully, David was able to break the cycle when he received effective support from NHS services. This opened the door to various volunteer opportunities that have really helped him on his journey to recovery. David tried new things, connected with people, and enjoyed the natural environment around him. David managed to find purpose through his experience of depression and it’s evident that this has continued to drive forwards his happiness and wellbeing. Having purpose in our lives is essential – it motivates us and gives us that true sense of belonging.