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Our fundraising campaign, Carry the Burden, is challenging people to carry an object of their choosing for 24 hours, to represent the invisible burden that those of us with mental health difficulties can feel as though we carry every day.

But what does that burden look like? Obviously it is different for everyone, but here James Webster shares his experience of depression and anxiety and how it has impacted his day-to-day life.

To celebrate the fantastic ‘Carry the Burden’ campaign, which highlights the invisible burden of mental health difficulties, I wanted to discuss a problem that I have found constant yet very hard to deal with as a result of my depression in particular, and something that I have only recently begun to resolve – that being, reading.

Yes, I know that sounds most bizarre. Reading? Surely that’s the least of your worries if you are depressed and keep thinking negative thoughts? And in many ways, yes, I have to keep things in perspective.

However, when I was a child I used to be such a bookworm. Lord of the Rings, The Northern Lights, Phillip Pullman, Michael Morpurgo – the more words and the fewer pictures, the better. This in turn contributed to a real passion for learning as a young lad. But when I got to the 6th form and then increasingly at university, I found myself turning away from the books and towards the beer on a regular basis! But this was more than me just letting my hair down; I was miserable and lost and became very depressed.

Many people are aware that a symptom of depression is making you lose interest in the things that you usually enjoy, and this was certainly part of it. I lost the motivation to read, or indeed to do anything. But it was more than that, too… When I did muster up the energy to engage in some reading (which was fairly important as a history student!) I found myself unable to focus or process the words.

I would read the same sentences over and over again – the words were going in, I could see the words on the page, but nothing was sticking! It was so frustrating and I found myself struggling to comprehend themes and ideas that should have been accessible, or having the ability to think clearly. I felt like my intelligence and brain power was being destroyed.

Despite the burden I carried around daily, I graduated with a 2:1 and made it into the world of work, which has been no easier to navigate. For about four years I found myself heavy with brain fog, struggling to concentrate on pieces of text at work, unable to process information quickly and even finding it hard to speak properly. Everyday I felt like I was losing brain cells, and it began to impact my ability to work and my self-esteem. I felt useless, because I couldn’t function properly. This merely added to my low mood and, as someone who had always loved reading and learning and debating, I found it incredibly difficult.

My academic record always suggested that I was vaguely intelligent (which may surprise some close friends!) and I had spent my life searching for meaning and pieces of wisdom – if my brain was too ‘broken’ to process information, too useless to help me learn and grow as a person… then what was the point?

Fortunately, there is a happy ending to this tale of distress. In October 2019 I finally accepted that I had some issues to deal with and I went to the doctors, largely prompted by separate severe symptoms typical of my mental state such as panic attacks and self-harm. I was immediately diagnosed with severe anxiety and chronic depression and offered the help that I needed. Since then, my mental health journey has gone in the right direction, although it has not always been easy.

Through a combination of medication, mindfulness, self-care and the support of my family, friends and beautiful girlfriend, I am becoming increasingly confident in a routine that works for me, enabling me to keep on top of my mental health and make the most of life. In addition to obvious improvements in my mood, I can safely say that my cognitive function is largely back to normal. My brain fog has gone, my speech has improved, my memory is back to normal and I am generally thinking much more clearly. This has meant I have really gotten back into reading and has actively encouraged me to pursue academic interests at the time of writing that had previously seemed impossible.

The website lists a variety of symptoms for depression, but these include, “difficulty speaking, thinking clearly or making decisions” and “difficulty remembering or concentrating on things.” Now I of course suffer from a variety of additional symptoms, but it was truly these specific issues that made me question most often as to whether life was worth living. I definitely still have my bad days where I feel a bit fuzzy or spaced out if I am stressed or feeling down, but these are now the exception rather than the rule.

For years, though, the persistent struggle for mental clarity was my invisible burden every day, whether I was at work or socialising, and perhaps something that few people consider when they think about mental health issues. So next time your friend seems spaced out or struggles to focus on the conversation, or maybe they are “so forgetful” that they can never remember recently discussed topics, it might be that they have something else going on. Fortunately, with the right support and a healthy routine, this is just another one of many symptoms that can be addressed and managed. Check out the Mind website to, *ahem*, read more about it!

Want to support the mental health support work Leeds Minds delivers by participating in #CarryTheBurden? Learn more about the campaign and get involved here.