Joshua shares his experience of living with depression

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Chiara Dargin, a psychologist from Strategy, Education & Prevention chatted with Joshua, a first year BA of Biological Sciences student. Joshua shares his lived experience of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and how he has developed a healthier relationship with his depression.

When did you first start experiencing concerns with your mental health?

“For me, that doesn’t really have a straightforward answer. I was incredibly aware of the horrible feelings, thoughts, and damaging behaviours I faced daily. However, I viewed it as merely a part of life. It’s similar to how most people would think about the common flu. You’re not too concerned that any major harm will befall you, and it will eventually pass. However (much like the flu), depression can spread and grow into a much larger issue if left untreated.  

Things began to escalate during my VCE studies, and my mental health declined severely. It was only then I considered I may have depression and recognized it as a chronic illness. Despite this, it took me much longer to seek help and communicate what I was enduring. Only recently have I developed the language and ability to articulate my experiences and emotions, which took many years of introspection and discussion with others.”

Were you aware that you were experiencing depression?

“No, I wasn’t for the first couple of years. I was all too familiar with the feelings of depression. The cold hollowness, the exhaustion, and that evil voice lurking in the corner of your mind saying you’ll never feel joy again. But I wasn’t aware I had a treatable condition and that it was called depression.

I wasn’t exposed to many productive conversations about mental health within my family and community, so it took me a long time to become diagnosed.”

What changes did you notice in yourself?

“Everybody’s experiences with depression may be slightly different. However, I have identified three critical signs that characterise my depressive episodes:

1) Repressing emotion: Not allowing myself or others to know how I truly feel,

2) Self-Isolation: Withdrawing from others and disconnecting socially and from myself, and

3) Poor coping mechanisms: Expedient measures to cope with feeling so low.

Every day felt like a constant battle. It took all I had to simply get out of bed each morning and confront life. Eventually, I lost sight of its purpose. I felt guilty and burdensome to everybody around me. I only experienced overwhelming negative emotions. A hollow emptiness I felt was inescapable. If nothing was going to change, I began to seriously consider removing myself from the equation altogether.

How would you describe being depressed?

“Being depressed is challenging to understand for those who haven’t felt it. However, I imagine it as an internal bully who tormented me and made me feel irredeemable. Somebody who would pull me down to my lowest and criticise me for feeling so defeated.

We all have relationships and I’m sure everyone has experienced at least one that was toxic. One of my most toxic ones was the kind I had with myself. I believe that relationship is the most important because it affects how you connect with others and perceive the world.

I decided to treat myself like I would treat another person. I continue developing a loving, supportive, and kind bond with myself. One that is honest and seeks to bring out the best of what I have to offer. Moreover, when you have established that with yourself, it will inevitably be how you define your relationships with others. .”

What’s the difference between ‘being sad’ and ‘being depressed’?

“From my perspective, sadness is normal, healthy, and typically short-term. It helps us process loss and grief, allows us to connect with others, and contributes to our sense of empathy. Like any other emotion, sadness serves a specific purpose in helping us navigate life.

Depression is a much deeper issue and fills you with an immense sense of hopelessness and misery. Your future looks incredibly bleak. It’s compounded by any suffering or failure you’ve experienced in the past and pain you may feel in the future. You feel burdensome to the people around you and unworthy of help. However, depression is not a permanent state of being, nor is its recovery linear. You can manage it and build the meaning in your life that will sustain you through the times you used to feel like giving up.”

How was your sense of identity related to your mental health?

“How I perceive my identity is a fundamental aspect of my mental health. Personally, I harboured very perfectionistic beliefs about my life. I took successes and failures as a measure of my self-worth. If I failed to achieve an ideal degree of success it became evidence of how worthless I was. Because I placed a lot of emphasis on academic performance – my grades had an enormous impact on fuelling my depression.”

Is that still the case for you now?

“Things have changed dramatically over the past year, especially. I decided to confront my beliefs head-on. I paid attention to the ideas I told myself and became increasingly aware of my motivations. I still face challenges with my mental health and my identity. I don’t wish to present the false idea that I have overcome my struggle. Old habits die hard but they’re starting to get into the casket.

When I allowed myself the flexibility to grow and evolve as a person, I began loosening the grip depression had on my life.”

What happened when you received a mental health diagnosis?

“I put off receiving a diagnosis for many years. We had a lot of difficult things going on in my family, including other mental health issues, and I thought a diagnosis of depression would exacerbate the situation. I was also concerned I would be perceived differently, as someone incapable of taking care of myself and others.

I was terrified to confront my demons and allow myself to be vulnerable at the risk of receiving poor reactions from others (which I did encounter). Moreover, being diagnosed would give my situation a word. That would suddenly make it real; Indisputable evidence that I could no longer hide and evade this problem, and I wanted to.”

Do you still see things that way?

“Receiving a diagnosis empowered me to take back control of my life and who I wanted to be. My experiences with depression will always be a part of my story and who I am, but it does not define what I am capable of or restrict the kind of person I strive to be. In-fact, it has only served to strengthen my character and resolve to live well and with purpose.”

How did you find meaning in your life again and what changed the way you viewed yourself?

“That was a gradual process that I’m confident will remain for the rest of my life. I began my first year at university in 2021 but took leave after several severe bouts of depression. It was a difficult decision for me at the time, and for the remainder of the year, I strove to make it worth it.

During that time, I continued seeing my psychologist. Together we unpacked the narrative behind what made me feel depressed. We analysed how it was wrapped around my sense of self-worth, motivated by past experiences, and exacerbated by present behaviours and habits.

I went to the hospital to get a referral for external psychological services and received one for Orygen. There I met with a ‘lived experience’ mentor. Finding somebody who understood what I was going through and helped me navigate my lowest moments was incredible. They were absolutely sensational, and we remain friends to this day.

I also engaged in volunteer work with animals and worked hard to obtain a position in that industry. Engaging in work that aligns with my career prospects is incredibly enjoyable and satisfying.

Furthermore, I’ve become a part of many programs to help support individuals with mental health struggles as I do. This has been an incredible support pillar for me. To give back and advise mental health programs has allowed me to transform the worst moments of my life into something constructive.”

What role did your Learning Access Plan (LAP) play in your semester?

“If you struggle with mental health – GET A LAP PLAN! I would never have gotten through my first semester without the ability to flexibly shift my workload to navigate my depression. At first, I was hesitant. I felt guilty about getting special treatment and ashamed I couldn’t manage the work myself.

Those are perfectly normal feelings to have but simply having the ability to request extra time or extensions without having to explain my condition every single time was immensely helpful. There will be times in my life when I may not have the option to have that leniency. However, it allows me to develop resilience without threatening my well-being and mental health.”

How do you balance your mental health with life & university stressors?

“By having a multi-dimensional, diverse, and consistent network of support. In terms of professional help, I engage in regular psychology appointments. Regarding a sense of community, I have developed friendships and engage with people of lived experience or taken opportunities to help other people understand their own mental health (which in turn helps me better understand mine). Medicinally, I take anti-depressants under the supervision of my GP and psychiatrist. Personally, I read books, listen to podcasts, go for walks, do breathing exercises, meditate, practice grounding techniques, engage in routines (even something as simple as doing your bed every day works miracles) while also keeping myself flexible and open to spontaneity and novelty. It is a constant experiment in manifesting every conceivable way of leading a meaningful and sustainable life.”

How did things shift for you?

“Taking responsibility for myself has been one of the greatest supports for managing depression. I became honest with myself and delved deep into my thought patterns, fundamental beliefs, and core values. When I began properly articulating these to myself – I gained the ability to communicate effectively with others.Opening up conversations with people about mental health and sharing my experiences have helped enormously. That doesn’t mean I divulge everything to everyone.

However, it’s become less a fear of revealing my struggle and more an evaluation of when it’s appropriate to tell my story and whom I wish to share it with. Taking responsibility for myself and my story has been monumental. It helps me define who I want to be rather than be defined by the challenges I’ve experienced.”

If you would like support for your own mental health, visit our Wellbeing services page for the services we offer or to make an appointment.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or if you are in an emergency situation, please contact the La Trobe University Crisis Line by calling 1300 146 307 or by texting 0488 884 100. Alternatively, you can contact Lifeline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on 13 11 14.