James Withey is a trained counsellor who worked in social care for 20 years. In 2011, James was diagnosed with clinical depression, attempted suicide and spent time in psychiatric hospital and crisis services. The Recovery Letters was originally a blog project conceived by James, where readers were encouraged to share their own stories of depression and their journeys towards recovery. The letters come from all over the world and detail the many different forms that depression can take.
As I sit in my room in a psychiatric hospital I keep thinking: ‘How did I end up here?’ Last year, I was delivering training on suicide prevention and now I’m on 15-minute suicide watch.
The past five months have been spent in turmoil - not able to eat, not able to work, not wanting to wash or smile and not being able to read. It was an extraordinary combination of feeling everything and nothing.
The pain was so relentless I attempt suicide and hope of ever getting better has vanished. This is depression. This is what it has done to me.
Only one mental health worker tells me I can recover from depression. Everyone else is friendly and concerned about keeping me alive, but doesn’t mention my future.
This terrifies me because depression is telling me I won’t get better and I’m worthless, so I really need to hear that recovery is possible, that things can improve. What I need are stories of hope.
When I come out of hospital I set up a website called The Recovery Letters and write the first letter to other people suffering because I don’t want them to be alone, as I was. I don’t want them to think that things will remain as painful as they are.
We have to use hope as the antidote to depression, so I tell them things have improved. They’re not perfect, but it’s better than it was.
I invite other people to write letters and the website takes off. I start to get feedback that the letters are saving lives, that it helps people to feel more hopeful, less isolated, less intimidated by depression.
Then the letter writers tell me they gain from telling their story, that the act of writing has helped their recovery - everyone seems to benefit.
Five years on and we have 60,000-70,000 people looking at the website each year, more and more letters appear on the website and reach people all over the world, of all ages and with all types of depression.
It’s incredible, it’s humbling and, most of all, it helps.
James has since co-authored an anthology of the letters with Olivia Sagan, who is Head of Psychology & Sociology at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, and is a chartered psychologist and former counsellor.
You can read the recovery letters and find out more about the book, titled The Recovery Letters: Addressed to People Experiencing Depression, at: www.therecoveryletters.com
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