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Kick up leaves! Chat to strangers! Spatchcock a chicken! Lucy Mangan tries out the latest advice on how to keep misery at bay

Don't worry. You can be happy. All you have to do, according to government thinktank Foresight, is follow its five-a-day programme of social and personal activities, and mental health and wellbeing shall be yours. Just as you should aim for a quintet of fruit and vegetables daily, you should now be aiming every day to connect with others, take some exercise, learn something new, take notice of your surroundings and get involved with your neighbours and local community. Manage all this and you will emerge - or so the theory goes - with a psyche as sleek and healthy as your bowels.

My own theory is that nothing is more likely to add to the sum of human misery than excessive interaction with others, enforced exercise and a daily stare round the bleak and desolate environs in which most of us live, but perhaps that just goes to show that I need to sign up to the government plan and sluice my psyche free of the cynicism, antipathy and scepticism currently gunging up its works. So for one day only, I gave it a shot:

1. Connecting with friends, family, colleagues and neighbours

Lucy Mangan chatting with Shirley Barry, a member of her local community. Photograph: Teri Pengilley

This is a lot harder than it looks. I work from home, so have no colleagues immediately to hand. My sister lives in Bristol and hates me. I've been trying to connect with my father for 34 years and he's still not interested, while if I become any more closely connected to my mother there is every chance that we will become one indivisible being, to - I assure you - absolutely no one's mental benefit.

I ring round my friends but they are all very thoughtlessly in full-time employment and quite firmly resistant to the idea of interrupting their working lives to improve mine.

This is the trouble with Pollyanna-style advice, of course. It generally presupposes a level of disposable income and leisure time that most people find laughable. Still, God and thinktanks love a tryer, so I head out to see if I can find some neighbours.

I find 72-year-old Shirley Barry sitting on a bench in the sun, reading a book and minding her own business. Odd as it feels, I approach her. Is she willing to chat to, if not strictly a neighbour, a fellow local inhabitant of Beckenham? She is. "I wasn't expecting an encounter," she says. "I've lived here for 35 years and the Beckenhamians don't normally speak unless introduced." I'm from Catford, originally, I explain. She moved here from Hampstead and we are soon deep in conversation about the strange north-south London divide. "I think it's because they used to keep all the unpleasant industries below the river," she muses. "Gluemaking, bonemashing - the great stinks. I think it's lingered in the consciousness. But," she grins, "I'm Welsh. We'll talk to everyone in all directions."

Talking to Shirley doesn't just make me feel good. She makes me feel there is hope for humanity. I might start disturbing people on benches on a regular basis. Score one to Foresight.

2. Learn something new

Learning to spatchcock a chicken. Photograph: Teri Pengilley

I've never understood this hardy perennial in the advisory border. Most of human unhappiness occurs during the school years when you are forced to learn new skills, facts and subjects all day with only occasional success.

I could try, I suppose, at last to discover how to work out the area under a graph, if not precisely why, but Foresight suggests mending a bike, learning a musical instrument or trying new recipes. I have a bike but it is in full working order and it seems counterproductive to break it on purpose. I check the house for forgotten grand pianos and abandoned oboes, but find none. Cooking it is.

Don't judge me, but I've always wanted to spatchcock a chicken. I print what seem like very clear instructions off the internet, but soon have to enlist the help of a husband.

"'Place chicken on a flat surface breast-side down.' Is the breast the top bit?


"Do you mean, when it's running about or when it's packed in its thingy?" he says.

"When it's how you buy it from the supermarket."

"Because when it's running about, its breast is at the front."

"Yes. I understand that. Most breasts are at the front. It's almost the definition of the word. But is a supermarket chicken upside-down or back-to-front or what?"

"Pull all its legs out from the body and we'll see how it must have walked when it was alive. Before it became this poor, plucked, pallid affront to humanity."

"OK. I still don't get it. Go and look on the internet."

"There's a video on YouTube. You're doing it all wrong. Turn it the other way. Cut down its backbone. No, its backbone. From its neck - no, its neck - to its bum."

"Now what?"

"Now turn it over. And flatten it out."

I have learned something new. I feel good. But bad for the chicken.

3. Be active

Playing tennis with her mother. Photograph: Teri Pengilley

A healthy mind in a healthy body is a dictum that has rung down the ages and it is time I tried putting it into practice, so as soon as my recently retired mother returns from a hard morning's research for her thesis on Reasonably Priced Filter Coffees and Scones in London and the South East, I drag her out to the local tennis courts. I loathe exercise more than I can possibly say, so the sheer pleasure I get from our game takes me entirely by surprise. Exercising outdoors is an entirely different experience from running on the treadmill at the gym or flinging yourself about in a fuggy hall as an aerobicised automaton shouts incomprehensible instructions. The air! The space! The freedom! I cannot lie. It really is uplifting. And it has the further inestimable benefit of allowing me to smash a ball at my mother's head and pretend it was an accident. Truly, a giant step to happiness.

4. Take notice

Kicking leaves in the park. Photograph: Teri Pengilley

"What is this life if, full of care,/We have no time to stand and stare?" William Henry Davies, writer of these famous lines, was a one-legged vagabond, so if he could stand, stare and find beauty in the world, it behoves us all to have a go.

Foresight recommends noting the beauty of the quotidian as well as the exotic and savouring the present, so on the way to the tennis courts in the local park, I try to discern the artless beauty in the skipful of rubbish outside an abandoned shop, the bell-like clarity of the children's voices in the school playground (which survives, by the way, even when they are shouting "Throw the ball, dickhead!" at a tiny, hapless figure clearly destined for a lifetime of panic attacks and bad life choices) and, in keeping with seasonal tradition, kick a pile of bronzed leaves in the park. A host of ageing dog turds underneath adhere firmly to my foot for the rest of the way.

In the park, things become easier. Even in the middle of the urban sprawl, even in the middle of this unspeakably rotten modern age, find a few trees together with a stretch of grass and suddenly, despite all mankind's best efforts, you have beauty. And, just as we are about to leave, we see a flock of the parakeets that have inexplicably established themselves over the last few years in this corner of said urban sprawl settle in the largest oak tree - the quotidian and exotic in one charming prospect.

And because I am savouring the present, I do not think about how they are driving out native species and how soon we will have to begin a serious programme of culling the lime-green interlopers. Nor do I dwell on the fact that this portion of Foresight's advice seems to amount to "Be happy - stop thinking." They would be very proud of me, and my shit-covered shoes.

5. Helping friends and strangers

I can't find any strangers to help. The only ones I see are walking musclebound dogs that they are clearly itching to set on people. I go back to see if Shirley needs her shopping carried or something, but she is gone. I hit the phone again.

Eventually, I get through to a friend who is in need of comfort. She is sitting in a Herfortshire A&E with her toddler son who greeted the new dawn by climbing out of his cot and bouncing off the radiator below. "He looked like he's been stabbed in the head," she wails. "There was blood everywhere!"

"But head wounds always bleed a lot, don't they?" I say. "Unless you can see brain, he'll probably be all right. And there are all sorts of carpet cleaners available nowadays. The room will be as good as new if you get scrubbing as soon as you're home." It feels good to help.

So how do I feel at the end of the day? I feel better. If I - and almost more importantly, all my friends and family - could find the time and inclination to do it all every day I'm sure I would feel better still. But it remains for all but a fortunate few - whom I suspect are quite happy enough already - essentially unworkable advice. You might as well instruct the nation to live in the 1950s: surely the last time there was any hope of living this way en masse. As long as you were north of the river, of course.

The kindness of strangers

After more than 20 years with depression, Zoe Lewis thought she would simply have to put up with her illness. But a friend persuaded her to try group therapy. What happened next changed her life

Monday April 7, 2008

The Guardian

Zoe Lewis: 'I'm just thankful for the friend who loved me more than I loved myself.' Photograph: David Levene

'Hello, I'm Zoe and I'm ... depressed." Twelve faces stare back at me, nodding sympathetically. I am in therapy for depression and I can't believe I'm here. Why am I here?

I mean, I know I suffer from depression periodically and take antidepressants, but I'm not depressed depressed. I'm just not that bad. I'm a busy woman, and to take the time to attend to some silly little person like me seems to me the height of overindulgent selfishness.

I look around the room and imagine that the other people are all here for proper depression - bipolar or unipolar or compulsive disorders that mean they can't leave the house. OK, so I get a bit down from time to time, but what's the biggie?

Well, the biggie was that my best friend decided that she had had enough of my weirdness.

"You need help," she told me, as she sat opposite me on the sofa, annoyingly entrenched.

"I'm fine."

"You are not fine," she persisted.

"OK, so I spend a lot of time alone,"

I snapped back. "I dislike the phone. I write every day. I'm driven to the point of obsession. OK, I want to be perfect - but don't we all?"

"Er, no we don't," she said, following me into the kitchen. "You walk up to eight miles a day. You take an unnaturally long time to recover from the break-up of relationships. You feel safer being alone ..."

"OK, OK, stop! I accept that I'm weird and I might need help for my weirdness but it's my fault I'm weird. It's not because I'm depressed."

"You need group therapy," she countered.

"Group what?" I shuddered at the thought.

I couldn't help feeling that sitting in a sort of "depressives anonymous" would send even the most Mary Poppins-like of us over the edge, but being an extremely nosy person, as well as a writer, I decided to go along.

A few weeks later, confronted by a roomful of expectant people, I am desperate to be anywhere else. Frankly, burning in hell seems an attractive option.

"Would you like to tell the group a little about why you are here?" asks the counsellor.

"I get a bit depressed sometimes, but it's just not that bad."

"All depression is bad," she says sympathetically. Like I deserve sympathy.

"I'm not depressed; I'm just not a very nice person. I get angry with people I don't even know - like bus drivers and people in news-agents. When anyone ever asks me how I am, I am rude because I want to cry, because how I am is bad, always bad, and they should damn well know not to ask such a stupid question, and when people call, I don't answer my phone. You see? I'm just a terrible person."

"You've just described the classic symptoms of depression," she says.

"No, no, no," I say. "You don't understand. This is what I'm like all the time."

"Well, have you ever considered that you might be depressed all the time?"

"Oh no, I've always been like this - well, since I was about eight, I suppose."

"Have you considered you might have been depressed since then?"

"No, no," I smile at her patiently. "You don't understand. I know when I'm depressed. When I'm depressed I can't leave the house. It overwhelms me like a physically sickness. It comes in waves and often I just drive around or sit in the car and cry."

"So could you possibly accept that these times you describe are serious major bouts of depression?"

I shrug and inspect my fingers, hoping that she'll move on. She doesn't.

"Do you know that a lot of people do not get out of bed for days in these bouts?"

My fingers are, at this stage, fascinating.

"The symptoms you describe are accurate for dysthymic depression - mild constant depression interrupted by occasional serious episodes."

After that first session, I take a walk. It has become stunningly obvious that my noticeable traits of character - things I had put down to personal idiosyncrasies - are actually symptoms of depression: isolation, difficulty having relationships, feeling sad, rejecting affection.

I will save you the sob story, but my parents were unhappy together and finally divorced when I was eight. My childhood losses and my feelings of rejection and abandonment could have kick-started the depression.

From both my own experience and what I have learned from psychiatrists, depression is the same feeling as grief. Grief occurs naturally after a major trauma such as an accident, bereavement or physical or emotional abuse. A person can be genetically predisposed to depression (ie, the body doesn't produce enough serotonin or some other "happy chemical"), but there is also a medical theory, to which I subscribe (promoted by Andrew Solomon in The Noonday Demon) that the brain, being a clever little sod, can learn to grieve all by itself. It says that lots of little traumas happening regularly throughout childhood and beyond (such as abandonment or the departure of a parent, or bullying or rejection) mean that the brain starts to recognise the feelings associated with grief and starts to repeat them whenever it feels like it, in the end not needing any traumatic event to stimulate it. Hence one starts to feel sadness and loss seemingly for no reason.

The knowledge that I am suffering from a depressive illness, coupled with my ability to discuss it with others in the same position, is nothing short of an epiphany. As the other people in the group talk, I find myself thinking, "My God, that's me - that's what I do" over and over again. Suddenly seeing that I am not alone in my weirdness is liberating. Perhaps I am not so terrible after all.

Then the group gives me feedback.

"I see a woman who is very hard on herself. Super-critical with impossibly high standards that she can never meet," says one man.

"I see a woman who is sad and needs to show herself a little compassion," says a lady with bipolar disorder.

Compassion? Me? Ha! That's a load of bollocks. I don't need compassion. I just need to do more, work harder - compassion is for other people.

My inner critic rages. Up to now I have relied on it to urge me forward, to keep me driven. Now I find that my negative voice is a manifestation of my illness, the lack of serotonin asserting itself, telling me I am bad and worthless.

"Are you ready to give yourself a break now?" The therapist smiles kindly. "It's been 28 years - you deserve a bit of peace."

I bite my lip and nod. Suddenly I feel like an eight-year-old again. I am made to write a letter from the adult me to the eight-year-old me, telling her that I love her.

I feel more than a little uncomfortable loving myself. I'm so used to hating myself.

You see, all those years, I thought it was normal to wake up in the morning and just see grey pointlessness. I thought it was normal to cry whenever you heard music. I thought it was normal to stare at people in the street and feel overwhelmed by sadness and futility at the sight of their pointless lives. I thought it was normal to avoid my friends most of the time. I've been seeing life in grey - like a rainy day in winter - and thinking this is what everybody sees. Happiness, whenever it has come, has been fleeting and so unfamiliar that it makes me sick with anxiety.

All of a sudden I can see that I have an illness that has gone untreated - perhaps dangerously so, because there are times I have felt so destructive or despairing that I have had no regard for my health. Now I am getting the help I need.

Of course, I am not the only person who has difficulty accepting this nebulous illness. Many people do not believe depression is real. There is no blood test that proves it, no physical handicap. Unless someone is crying in front of you how, can you tell they are depressed? They are probably just making it up, trying to get sympathy, attention, a day off work ... But let's turn this round. Why would someone want to be unable to get out of bed or go to the shops or talk on the phone or raise a smile?

I'm just thankful for the friend who loved me more than I loved myself, who stepped outside of her - and my - comfort zone and pointed it out. If you think you are depressed, you probably are - and there is no reason you should miss out on the everyday happiness that most people take for granted.

· Zoe Lewis's new play Oyster is at the Hen & Chickens Theatre, London N1 (020-7704 2001), at 7pm tonight.

The 'IoS' special report on depression last week prompted Lord Bragg to tell Sophie Goodchild & Jonathan Owen about his own 'mental crash'

Sunday 15th October 2006

For more than 40 years, Melvyn Bragg has been one of Britain's best-known figures in the arts world. Whatever he has turned his hand to, the Labour peer has achieved huge success, from creator of the arts programme The South Bank Show to award-winning novelist.

But for all his glittering achievements, his life has also been punctuated by periods of crushing despair. A "massive onslaught of depression" hit him in his late teens, and then came a mental crash in his late 20s after the suicide of his first wife.

As president of the mental health charity Mind, Lord Bragg has also witnessed at first hand the stigma endured by psychiatric patients, which he says makes it harder "coming out with mental illness than coming out for being gay".

There has been much written this week on the subject of mental illness following Alastair Campbell's account of his own battles with depression in The Independent on Sunday last week. And not all of the responses have been positive. Some columnists have questioned whether depression is a real illness, and others have suggested that it is replacing the bad back as an excuse for malingerers to take days off work.

Lord Bragg dismisses a lot of the negative responses as "ignorance", but says it is important to realise that depression occurs on many different levels.

"In many cases people are disabled for months on end and simply can't cope with working or daily life. But there are levels of it just like there are levels of back pain. Of course people feel down from time to time and they use the word 'depressed' just like people who feel they are quite fond of somebody use the word 'love'. A lot of words in our language are elasticated beyond any core meaning but it doesn't mean there isn't such a thing as depression.

"It can be a deeply serious illness - you just have to go to Highgate mental hospital to see people who are clinically depressed - but it also occurs at different levels. When you say 'depression' you don't have to be sectioned and drugged every day to be the only person who is depressed."

The meaning of words is important to Lord Bragg. Yet as an adolescent growing up in a small market town in Cumbria, he had no word to describe the terrible lows that left him barely able to function as a human being. The young Melvyn inhabited a closed world of post-war austerity where "everything was hidden away" and there was no possibility of confiding his anxieties in anyone.

From being in the top three in his class, Stanley and Ethel Bragg's diligent, bright only child sunk to the bottom three. His performance in sports also suffered as he withdrew into himself, crippled by anxiety. Even situations that once he had handled with ease became overwhelming.

"It was difficult to talk about it because I did not dare tell anybody. But I remember quite clearly I was unable to do the things I wanted to do. It was 1953 in a small town in the north of England - who did I talk to and what did I say? I didn't even have the words 'cracking up' in my possession, although I knew something was very badly wrong but couldn't describe it, even to myself.

"You are quite good at subterfuge [at that age] and ... it was the good old days where you did not talk about anything. My background and such meant that there was nobody I could talk to, would talk to, knew how to talk to.

"Looking back I have a certain affection for that time but in fact it was no good. And it's taken an awful long time for mental illness to be discussed in any way."

Despite the lack of professional help, he did eventually manage to pull through these dark years and went on to win a place at Wadham College, Oxford. Literary success followed swiftly with a publishing deal at the age of 25 for his first novel. But with success came the return of his anxieties in his late 20s.

He is guarded about talking about the catalyst for his second "bad bout" of depression - "It's a bit complicated and a bit personal" - but there is no doubt that his mental collapse was in part connected with the suicide of his wife, the French countess Marie-Elisabeth Roche. She died in 1971, leaving behind not only a devastated Bragg but also their five-year-old daughter.

This time, Lord Bragg, now married to the writer and television producer Cate Haste, with whom he has two children, did seek professional help in the form of psychoanalysis.

"In many ways psychological therapy has been a good help; in other ways it has been a hindrance. My own internal jury is out on that. I think drugs are very useful and very effective for some people, although I never took them - I'm frightened of drugs. There's no magic wand. Sufferers are queuing up at the gates of hell and wanting to know how to get out of there."

For about two years, he was unable to hold down a regular job and instead managed to survive by writing film scripts and then taking part-time work in television.

"If I'd had to do a regular job I would have failed ... They [his bouts of depression] were quite severe in both cases, severe enough to make me massively less effective, deeply unhappy and frightened a lot of the time. But, compared with people I now know, I was nowhere near the lower depths."

Lord Bragg says it is "terrific" that much airtime and many column inches have been devoted to the subject of mental illness in the wake of Mr Campbell's admission, as well as the actor Stephen Fry's account of living with bipolar disorder. He is also unfazed about the backlash that has inevitably followed.

"These two high-profile men 'coming out', to use a crossed metaphor, has had a tremendous effect. When that happens there is a backlash, but it's like ME [myalgic encephalopathy] - people said 'pull yourself together' and it now turns out to be a serious, disabling illness. The overall thing is that this is now discussed. One of the reasons why so many people say it's like backache is because they don't know enough, and it's easy to scoff when you don't know anything."

So how does he define severe depression? A fair guide, he says, is whether or not you can take part in normal life, even to a limited extent. "People who are having severe depression find that extremely difficult, if not impossible." Occasionally, the veteran broadcaster, now 67, says he gets a warning - "a flash in the brain" - which reminds him that, as with a back injury, he has to watch out. But he stresses it is important to remember that people do recover from depression and that bosses should not discriminate against potential employees.

"For so many years Mind has been working away in a very unfashionable area. I think there may be something in the fact people are scared of 'catching' mental illness and in that we want to have people way below us because it makes us feel better.

"I know a lot of people who have been through it and come through it, and that is really important to the 600,000 people out there who are suffering. It isn't like the amputation of a leg; it's like a broken leg - it may take a long time, but it mends."

Responses to the depression special edition

It was extremely encouraging to see the high profile given to depression in the special edition on 8 October. Alastair Campbell's confession, coupled with recent biographical admissions from the likes of Stephen Fry and Neil Lennon, will, I hope, go some way to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness. The editorial in last Sunday's edition showed vision, and I will follow The Independent on Sunday's campaign with interest - and with input.

If mental illness was tackled from an early age and appropriate treatment was widely available on the NHS, then the overall effect would be immeasurable.

Carolyn McKerracher, Edinburgh

Your recent coverage of mental health issues has left me wondering just what progress we have made as a society.

Remember that the 1980s saw the start of a change from the Victorian "asylums" to "care in the community". The numbers of hospital beds for long-stay and short-stay patients have been drastically reduced over the past 25 years. However, care in the community has not been a universal panacea. Many do not receive any support at all. For others the standard of care is of poor quality, and for others again the care is rationed.

David Hodgson, Cambus, Alloa

Mr Campbell's depression at the time of Dr Kelly's death was no doubt regrettable. He can at least count himself fortunate that it was not as severe as the mental state that caused Dr Kelly to cut his wrists and kill himself.

George Wightman, London

At last the anti-depressants vs cognitive therapy debate has widened, thanks to Rufus May ("Britain on the couch", 8 October), beyond looking at how to swap misery for happiness to what depression is made of. Is it a medical condition at all? Or is it a deep long-term sadness that we want a doctor to "magic away", when we should be finding ways to care for this part of ourselves?

Jane Barclay, Exeter, Devon

In the 1970s it took several months for me to get a diagnosis of depression and, even then, my GP was reluctant to tell me. My company's doctor was supportive, but volunteered not to put the illness in his report to the company. I suggest that this is part of the reason why there appears to have been less depression then!

David Bell, Ware, Hertfordshire