It’s world mental health day today. Here’s some advice on psychic self-defence

It’s nearly a year since I came out as trans/NB, and about three years since I was diagnosed with depression. I’m much happier these days. Sometimes clichés are clichés because they’re true: it really does get better.

To mark world mental health day, which is today, I thought I’d scribble a quick piece about the importance of psychic self-defence. I’m writing this with trans people in mind but most of the points are relevant to everybody.

Check yourself before you wreck yourself: how to practice psychic self-defence

One of the things many trans people are pleasantly surprised to discover is that by and large, nobody cares whether you’re trans or not. Unfortunately the few people that do care have very loud voices, and it’s easy to end up feeling quite vulnerable as a result. That’s why it’s important to practice psychic self-defence.


First step: don’t Google “psychic self-defence”, because there’s a whole genre of books out there dedicated to the art of fighting paranormal attacks. I’m talking about something a bit less magical but just as effective, which is insulating yourself from toxic negativity. I call it psychic self-defence; others call it self care.

Don’t follow everyone

Social media can be brilliant for trans people. It enables us to find our kind of people, to learn from others’ experiences and to get support when we need it. However, social media can also be a toxic hellswamp where trans people are besieged by bigots, and if you’re seeing that daily then it’s going to make the world seem a much more wicked place.

The other danger of social media is people sharing anti-trans posts and articles they disagree with. Unfortunately by circulating such media the trans people are doing exactly what the authors want: sharing their views more widely. Again, it makes the world feel much smaller and nastier than it actually is.

Don’t read everything

Just because you’re trans doesn’t mean you need to stay up to date with everything being said or written about being trans. I’ve just cancelled my subscription to a newspaper after an uninterrupted seven day run of misleading anti-trans articles, partly because it meant I started seven consecutive days in a bad mood and partly because if they’re getting the facts wrong on a subject I know about, how do I know they’re reporting accurately on the subjects I don’t?

Turn off notifications

Chances are you have a smartphone, and chances are it notifies you of things you don’t need to be notified of: a new email, a mention on social media, an updated magazine. Very few of these things are worth interrupting what you’re doing, even if you’re doing nothing, and even the silent notifications can have a malevolent impact as the little red circle fills with ever higher numbers of things you haven’t looked at yet. Pare back notifications to things you actually need to know about immediately, turn the others off and enjoy the silence.

Choose your battles


If you wish, you can battle all day every day with people on the internet who want to argue with you – not just about trans issues, although God knows there’s no shortage of those arguments, but about anything at all. You’ll never win and it’ll just make you unhappy. As George Bernard Shaw reportedly put it: “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”

Read the right things

Books are magical things, and even more magical when you’re trans: if you’re feeling pretty low, reading about the experiences of somebody who’s been there, done that and come out smiling really helps. For me that included The Gender Games by Juno Dawson, Trans Like Me by CN Lester and She’s Not There by Jenny Boylan, among many others. Other books that really helped me include Matt Haig’s Reasons To Stay Alive and Derren Brown’s Happy.

And of course, fiction provides much-needed escapism. Novels are portals to other worlds, and it’s always fun to travel.

Don’t fall for the beauty myth


By all means aspire to be a better version of yourself – if you aren’t happy with your weight, change what you eat; if you aren’t happy with your fitness, go for a run – but comparing yourself to some of the most beautiful people on the planet is a mug’s game largely perpetrated by people trying to sell you things you don’t need.

Don’t stay online

There’s a world beyond our phones and PCs, and it’s often a much nicer world. Just going out for a walk is good for your body and mind, and if you can combine that with meeting people who actually make your life better then that’s something you should do at every opportunity.

Be nice to yourself


Try to find things that make you happy. They needn’t be big things: a new book from the charity shop or a swim in the local pool can be just as rewarding as a PlayStation 4. My thing is gigs: I love the anticipation, the gig-day excitement and the joy of bouncing around like a loon in a room full of like-minded people. Think of these things as the cure for whatever makes you feel sad, an “In Case Of Emergency Break Glass” for your mental health.

Don’t let the big stuff frighten you

Time for another quote, this time from the Chinese philosopher Laozi in around 600 BC: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. Sometimes the best way to deal with a terrifyingly big thing is to concentrate on just putting on foot in front of another. People are natural worriers and many trans people doubly so. Focus on what you can do or deal with right now and let the future take care of itself.

Find someone to talk to


Whether it’s online, a helpline or a real-life friend, it’s important to find people you can talk to when you need to. Friends don’t necessarily mean shoulders to cry on. Just being around people who make you feel happy is powerful magic. We humans are social animals, and friendship is an important factor in how we feel about ourselves. Look on meetup.com or on local noticeboards to find things you might want to do and where you might get to meet nice people.

Bin the booze

Self-medication – a polite way of saying “drinking too much” or “getting off your face on drugs” – is common among trans people, but if you’re already feeling a bit sad they’ll make things worse. It’s boring as hell, I know, but moderating substance use, eating well and doing a bit of exercise will all make huge differences to how you feel, and often how you look too. If you’re spending a fortune on skincare while eating crap or going to the gym to work off junk food you’re wasting your money, and your time.

Don’t waste time on people who aren’t worth it


Online or off, some people are emotional vampires who suck the joy out of everything – and unless they’re your conjoined twin, you don’t have to put up with that. Where possible, avoid spending time with people who’ll just drag you down. That’s harder with close family than with friends, of course, but if you come from a long line of emotional vampires you can still minimise the time you spend with them and do something less negative instead.

Get a dog, or borrow one, or invite a friend who has one over


Dogs are nature’s anti-depressants.

Take care of yourself

Whitney Houston was right. Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

If you need help, ask for it. Being trans isn’t a mental illness, but many of us experience mental illnesses such as depression (as do many other people, of course).

Mental illness is no different to physical illness: you wouldn’t leave your arm hanging off for fear of being judged and you shouldn’t let embarrassment or stigma about mental illness prevent you from getting help. It might take a while to get the right help – different people have different solutions – but it is out there and it does work.

If you’re really struggling and need help right now, these numbers save lives:

Samaritans 116 123 / jo@samaritans.org

LGBT+ switchboard 0300 330 0630

Breathing Space 0800 83 85 87

It’s okay to say you’re not okay.

Stayin’ Alive

Image by Anel Rosas on Flickr, some rights reserved (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Image by Anel Rosas on Flickr, some rights reserved (CC BY-SA 2.0)

About a year ago, I was diagnosed with depression. It wasn’t a surprise – it’s something I’ve experienced on and off for years – but the act of naming it, of putting up my hand and saying “I need help”, was an important part of getting better. When you hold monsters up to the light, they lose their power.

And depression has a lot of power. As I’m sure you’ve read elsewhere, depression isn’t about feeling a bit sad. In my case it was an inability to feel anything positive. All the things that give me pleasure – family, friends, music, movies, comedy, books, work – didn’t. Imagine eating your favourite meal but something has switched your tastebuds off, seeing your favourite band live but being unable to hear any of it.

The only emotions I still felt were negative. Fear, panic, self loathing, anger. Tiny little things would release furies, anger that would rage and burn everything it could reach. I’m the least frightening man you’ll ever meet, and yet I found myself one morning jumping out of my car to harangue a bull-necked, shaven-headed ogre of a man in a big BMW because he’d had the temerity to beep his horn at me. He could have snapped me in half easily but backed off instead, calling me – with some justification – “fucking mental”.

The feeling of being a passenger in your own body, the feeling that somebody else is driving the bus, is very frightening.

I’m writing this now because I’ve just finished reading Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig, a novelist whose The Humans I really enjoyed. This one is non fiction, and it’s about his experience of depression. It’s a good book, sad and funny and wise, and the conversations between Matt-then and Matt-now really resonated. I particularly liked the list of things Haig experienced that elicited more sympathy than his depression, a list that’s as horrible as it is hilarious.

Like Haig, I’ve come through it and I’m in a much better place. Everybody’s experience is different, but in my own case I found my wife and brother invaluable, seeing a sympathetic GP helpful, Sertraline/Zoloft useful (albeit possibly due to the placebo effect: the dose was small and I was also making big changes that I’m sure had positive effects) and counselling a complete and utter waste of fucking time. Over six weeks of three-hour gaps in my working day (there’s a clinic in my home town but I was sent to a faraway one due to an admin error; once you see your counsellor you can’t change clinics) I was given the following advice:

  • why don’t you get a wee part time job?
  • think you’ve got problems? Remember there are babies with Ebola in Africa!

I imagined my counsellor hanging around road accidents, yelling at the mangled victims: “look on the bright side! At least you don’t have AIDS!”

One of the questions you’re asked each week is whether you had made plans to kill yourself since your last session. When I said I had I was told that the question really meant was I making plans that I still intended to keep. As I clearly wasn’t trying to top myself at that specific moment, my answer was logged as a no. Presumably that was to keep the figures looking good as my six weeks were nearly over and I wasn’t getting any benefit from the sessions.

I’m not just bitching here. The point is that I got better despite such fuckwittery. Not all counsellors are hopeless. Not all drugs are ineffective. Not all lifestyle changes are pointless. X might not work, but Y just might. And talking to people about it really helps.

Like Haig, now-me could have a conversation with then-me. I’d tell myself that what I was feeling was real, but that I could make changes to deal with it. I’d tell myself that depression is an obstacle, but not a life or death sentence. And I’d tell myself that one day in the not too distant future I’d be sitting with my family, making them howl with laughter, feeling joy so much greater than the worst things depression could ever throw at me.

“The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality”

This Ted talk by Andrew Solomon is very good.

I want to say that the treatments we have for depression are appalling. They’re not very effective.They’re extremely costly. They come with innumerable side effects. They’re a disaster. But I am so grateful that I live now and not 50 years ago, when there would have been almost nothing to be done. I hope that 50 years hence, people will hear about my treatments and be appalled that anyone endured such primitive science.

So now people say, “You take these happy pills, and do you feel happy?” And I don’t. But I don’t feel sad about having to eat lunch, and I don’t feel sad about my answering machine, and I don’t feel sad about taking a shower. I feel more, in fact, I think, because I can feel sadness without nullity.

It’s timely in a week where the Office of National Statistics reports the highest male suicide rates since 2001 (and a rise in all suicides); while women are more likely to suffer from depression, men are more likely to die from it.

Matt Haig, writing in the Guardian about his own depression:

Suicide is now – in places including the UK and US – a leading cause of death, accounting for more than one in 100 fatalities. According to figures from the World Health Organisation, it kills more people than stomach cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, colon cancer, breast cancer, and Alzheimer’s. As people who kill themselves are, more often than not, depressives, depression is one of the deadliest diseases on the planet. It kills more people than most other forms of violence – warfare, terrorism, domestic abuse, assault, gun crime – put together.

…So what should we do? Talk. Listen. Encourage talking. Encourage listening. Keep adding to the conversation. Stay on the lookout for those wanting to join in the conversation. Keep reiterating, again and again, that depression is not something you “admit to”, it is not something you have to blush about, it is a human experience. It is not you. It is simply something that happens to you. And something that can often be eased by talking. Words. Comfort. Support. It took me more than a decade to be able to talk openly, properly, to everyone, about my experience. I soon discovered the act of talking is in itself a therapy. Where talk exists, so does hope.

An unhealthy obsession with smoking

Bizarre news from Scotland:

Patients and visitors will be banned from using electronic cigarettes in hospital grounds across Scotland within weeks.

NHS boards will be required to ensure that their grounds are smoke-free by April.

Electronic cigarettes don’t produce smoke – they produce water vapour – so why are they part of the ban?

According to a spokesperson for NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde:

These products are currently not regulated and there are concerns over potential safety issues with the products. In addition e-cigarettes mimic the habit and look of smoking and therefore provide negative role modelling for young people.

That’s ridiculous. The argument against smoking indoors is inarguable. A ban on cigs around hospital entrances is reasonable, given that running a gauntlet of cigs isn’t very nice. A ban on cigs in the grounds strikes me as a bit much but okay, there’s still a logic to it (and mess to clean up if there wasn’t a ban). But to ban things that don’t produce smoke on the grounds that they might have some undiscovered health risk and because they look a bit like cigarettes is utterly ridiculous. The risk from e-cigarettes to other people is zero, and the risk to users is probably zero too.

I don’t smoke any more, but I remember the cravings and the way stress would ramp them up to particularly unpleasant levels. Given that we’re rarely in hospitals for happy reasons – with a few exceptions such as maternity wards we’re usually there because we or somebody we care about is having a horrible time – banning nicotine addicts from doing something completely harmless is just kicking people when they’re down.

A black hole, not a black dog

There’s an honest piece about depression in this week’s Sunday Post by the very talented and exceptionally nice Chae Strathie, whose books make lots of children very happy.  For Strathie the illness wasn’t so much about feeling down – it was about not feeling anything at all. As he puts it, it was more a black hole than a black dog.

It sounds melodramatic now, with the benefit of hindsight. But at the time it was all too real and impossible to see a way out.

Of course, being a Scottish male in public I put on a brave face and told no one about what I was going though. If bottling up emotions was an event in the Commonwealth Games, Scotland would sweep the field. When it comes to keeping schtum about feelings, we’re world-class.

I’ve experienced similar issues, and like Strathie I went to the doctor about it. If you can relate, you should go too.

Jumping at shadows

Sorry for the relative quiet recently: it’s been a fairly unpleasant couple of weeks, and I spent most of July convinced that I had a horrible disease. Unfortunately for anyone who wishes I were dead, it turns out that I don’t.

If you’re interested, here’s the story: I’ve had a persistent chest/throat problem that I thought was the hangover from a chest infection, and after a couple of occasions where I found myself spitting blood I figured it’d be a good idea to go to the doctor. The combination of the word “blood”, my age and my smoking history (22 years of overly enthusiastic smoking, which ended three years ago) sets off all kinds of alarms, so the doc referred me for a chest X-ray at the beginning of July.

The X-ray results came back ten days later. There were two “abnormalities”, shadows on my left lung.

I think many smokers suffer from a kind of dour fatalism, a belief that the smokes are going to get you sooner or later. I certainly do, so when my GP said “shadows” I heard “tumours”. I was wrong – a subsequent CT scan and bronchoscopy (where they put a camera in your nose, down your throat and into your lungs for a look around, which is as horrible as it sounds) were both clear; the shadows were just artefacts, signs of nothing at all.

Thanks to yesterday’s bronchoscopy, I can finally relax: whatever I’ve got may be annoying, but it isn’t lung cancer.

I should probably stop binge drinking and feeling sorry for myself now.

One of the things that’s really struck me about all of this is the NHS. Without exception I’ve been treated very quickly, by very nice people, in spotless wards. The buildings may be knackered and the service hopelessly overloaded, but the important bits, the dealing with patients bits, have been wonderful. I don’t think it’s just because the bits of the NHS that do cancer diagnosis have been given loads of cash, either: when I was treated for carpal tunnel syndrome a couple of years back I had a very similar experience.

I spend most of my time moaning about things, so it’s nice to praise something for a change. From my GP to the nurses, porters and specialists at Glasgow’s Western Infirmary and Gartnavel Hospital, everybody’s been brilliant.

Death by barbecue

If it ever stops raining and you decide to throw a few shrimps on the barbie, make sure you don’t kill yourself with it afterwards: according to the Gas Safe Register, one in five of us doesn’t realise that bringing an expired barbecue indoors or into a tent can be fatal.

The Jenny McCarthy Body Count

You can’t accuse this site of mincing its words:

In June 2007 Jenny McCarthy began promoting anti-vaccination rhetoric. Because of her celebrity status she has appeared on several television shows and has published multiple books advising parents not to vaccinate their children. This has led to an increase in the number of vaccine preventable illnesses as well as an increase in the number of vaccine preventable deaths.

Jenny McCarthy has a body count attached to her name. This website will publish the total number of vaccine preventable illnesses and vaccine preventable deaths that have happened in the United States since June 2007 when she began publicly speaking out against vaccines.

The best tech-related thing I’ve ever bought

I’ve slipped a disc again, and for extra fun I’ve managed to do something to the sciatic nerve so there’s pain in my leg that isn’t actually real (it’s referred pain from the nerve) and that doesn’t respond to things like heat patches. It’s seriously bloody sore, and yet again I’m thanking myself for spending silly money on a ridiculous chair: where beds, sofas and dining chairs are all painful to sit at, my posh chair leaves me pain-free.

If you’re interested and flush it’s a Herman Miller Mirra, which I’ve seen online for around £375. That sounds like a lot but if you have back problems, you’ll get much more benefit from that £400ish quid than you will from a new smartphone or iPad. I’ve had this one for years, and it’s as good today as it was when I bought it.

Fatherhood, depression and bullshit

Many new fathers are filled with great joy on becoming parents, but for some it’s the beginning of a long, dark period of depression. Writing in the Observer, Barbara Ellen completely misrepresents the issue and writes the kind of heartless column you’d expect from the Daily Mail’s Jan Moir:

I would have been more concerned that the mothers in question were having to put up with such exhausting narcissists as partners – men incapable of hiding their sulky self-absorption

As Ally Fogg writes on Comment is Free, Ellen’s column is based on a Daily Mail piece that’s hardly fair, balanced or even accurate. A study found that some fathers suffered from depression in the early stages of parenthood; the Mail’s Robert Lefever claimed that the “poor dears” had post-natal depression, which is something else entirely.

Lefever misreported the study’s findings as being that 5% of fathers develop post-natal depression. He went on to sarcastically ask whether men would get pre-menstrual tension next, and revealed his true colours by worrying that “politicians, of the bleeding heart tendency, will say that these men should be treated sympathetically – at the expense of their employers”.

Cue Lefever and Ellen telling everyone to man up. Fogg again:

Both Lefever and Ellen strongly imply that paternal depression is little more than whiny men wishing to jump aboard the PND bandwagon. Their prescription would appear to be: man up and suck it up. The reality emerging from medical and psychological research is precisely the opposite. Again and again, researchers point out that the biggest problem is that many men will not admit to depression and will not seek help when needed.

Ignore the Ellens and Lefevers of this world: depression is a serious illness with horrible consequences not just for the sufferer, but for the people around them. If you’re a dad and you’re depressed, you need to speak to somebody about it – sooner rather than later.