Tanya Cushman had a secret. Not a fun secret with an expiry date — like waiting till the 12th week of pregnancy to reveal the exciting news or planning a surprise party for a loved one. My secret was painful and shameful. It made me feel below par. Less of a human being. A prisoner in my own home. A waste of a life. My secret was so heavy that it broke me. It took from me my job, my friends, even my tooth. And it took away me from me. My secret was that I had depression.
Depression is a cruel and debilitating illness. It affects every single aspect of my life. The negative thoughts are deafening. I feel weak, ashamed and alone, unworthy, hopeless and helpless. I develop anxieties on top of my anxieties — leaving the house, answering the telephone, opening the post, driving my car, travelling by train, noise, people.
My family is brilliant, but it’s almost as if their brilliance shines rather too brightly, that I put them on a pedestal, as my depression convinced me that I just don’t match up. I feel I am a burden to them, that I’m dimming their light, that in simply existing, I am slowly, but surely, ruining their lives.
Talking about depression isn’t new for me. I do it every single day as part of my job, but from behind a laptop. I feel vulnerable, naked. My instincts are screaming at me to run and hide, but there’s nowhere to hide. And to make matters worse, experience tells me that you probably like me less now than you did two minutes ago; that you might feel a little bit ashamed for me; or struggle to maintain eye contact.
You might think that I’m lying, maybe seeking attention, that perhaps I am to blame. The problem with keeping depression a secret is that it only serves to exacerbate the illness. Keeping depression a secret gives it every ounce of your power. There is a well-known quote by Mark Twain that says, “Anger is an acid, which does more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” And neuroscience tells us that keeping a secret is just as detrimental to us as suppressing anger. It affects our mental and physical health.
In fact, the very act of thinking about a deeply held secret changes our physiology. We experience a surge in cortisol levels, which have been linked to a weakened immune system, increased blood pressure, memory loss, and more aches. Every time that I look in the mirror, I can see how my secret has affected me physically.
There’s a Grand Canyon on my forehead — a frown line that wasn’t there before, a frown line that looks like the word ‘worry’ is etched on my face. In 2009, I discovered the magical world of Twitter — some of you might be familiar with that today — a place where people were openly talking about my secret for all the world to see, publicly, openly and with clarity.
I was so confused. I’d been so desperate to guard my secret. I’d lied to people, hidden from the world, convinced they’d all be better off without me. It was astonishing to me that there were people who were so unashamed of the very thing that I’d been so ashamed of. But it felt powerful too.
It was the moment when I gave up giving up. I was reading my story in their words. I wasn’t the only one who had depression. Others did too. I wasn’t the only one who was struggling to eat, sleep, interact with people, function. Others were too. Those are the people who saved me. The people who saved me from me were people I’d never met before, people who gave me a window into the outside world, people I could reach from my bed, people who said “me too” as I shared my experiences of depression with them, people who gave me hope.
And as the hope inside me began to grow, I realised something — people, including me, seemed quite comfortable talking about their experiences of depression online.
Research by King’s College, London, shows that personal contact with people with mental health problems is the most effective way to reduce discrimination and prejudice. It’s a vicious circle. The more we try to conceal the illness, the more we feel the need to, and the more ashamed we feel.
It’s clear that there’s a need for digestible information and an opportunity to harness peer support, not just for those with depression, but for their loved ones too. I gained so much from those conversations on Twitter, and I wanted to somehow be a conversation starter for others who were where I had been. And so the idea for Blurt was born.
Blurt exists to make a difference to anyone affected by depression. We start conversations, and connect people. Think of us as the knowing nod. You’ve all seen it. A slight bob of the head accompanied by a wry smile, a gesture that says so much. It says, “I’m here for you. I’m listening. I understand.” That’s us.
We strongly believe that mental health is just as important as physical health; the stigma takes lives of many. All of the work that we do is underpinned by those statements. During the Depression Awareness Week in April 2016, we ran a campaign. It was the first campaign we’ve ever done. The idea behind it was to start conversations, give people the chance to share the reality of living with depression and the impact it’s had on their lives, and challenge the stigma. The campaign was called “What you don’t see”. We had a good start.
On a Monday morning, we had already featured on Huffington Post UK’s front page, and we’d emailed thousands of our supporters, but we were still really, really worried about how the campaign would be received, whether it was perhaps a step too far to ask people to boldly talk about depression online.
But we needn’t have worried. By Monday afternoon, the hashtag #WhatYouDontSee had been trending for four hours on Twitter. At one point, it was the fourth most talked-about topic in the UK. And then, we broke our Twitter as we tried so desperately to reply to every single tweet, not wanting any of those brave people to go unheard.
Tuesday was a quieter day. But Monday had exceeded all of our expectations, so we didn’t really mind. We thought maybe we’d peaked early, and that was okay. And then boom, Wednesday. Buzzfeed wrote an article about our campaign. It trended on Buzzfeed’s website that day and was read by over three-quarter of a million people. We then broke our Twitter four more times as we so desperately tried to deal with the increased use of our hashtag.
Thursday was another really big, big day. Our campaign was picked up by Metro, GQ magazine, Stylist, Twitter’s Moments, rugby legend Jonny Wilkinson, author Marian Keyes, and then we reached the dizzying heights of Hollywood as Prison Break star Wentworth Miller talked about our campaign on his Facebook page.
Thankfully, Friday was a much quieter day. We were exhausted and emotional. It had been an exciting week, but we’d been replying to so many brave tweets that it had taken a lot from us too. Our hashtag was and still is going. It has been used over 100,000 times on Facebook alone.
What was so amazing about the campaign was not the campaign itself, it was the people. People who were able to share their story. It made for an incredible week, a week I’ll never forget. And in case you’re ever in any doubt, your words, they do have meaning. You can make a difference.
Depression convinced me that I would never amount to anything, that I was a waste of a life. It almost took my life in 2005 and 2007. Because of those people who were able to share their experience of depression, I was able to slowly rebuild myself. Those people were a catalyst to a chain of events that see me standing here today.
You see, there was power in their pain, not hurt and devastation. The power was that they were able to use their hindsight and allow me to use it as my foresight. I was able to learn from their experiences, and in turn, others have been able to learn from mine too. A Mexican wave of truth, courage and kindness. Search out those people who share your secrets. Allow them to tell your story in their words as one day, you may do for others too. And please know this: even when you feel empty, as though you are nothing, you’re not nothing. Your light shines so brightly, and even if you can’t see it, we can.