A friend of mine recently reminded me of an aspect of depression that is often overlooked: that the lack of motivation to do things can affect not only your ability to participate in social activities, but every element of your life, including eating.
People who don’t really understand depression often offer advice such as “if you ate healthier food you would feel better” or “if you could just get a regular sleeping and eating schedule, everything would start to improve.” While I don’t disagree with the content of the statements – certainly routine and consuming healthy food has been demonstrated to prove overall health – they’re not particularly useful pieces of advice for a depressed person. The thing is that eating healthy food involves one of two things: making it yourself at home cheaply; or buying expensive pre-made food at high-end supermarkets. As most people can’t afford the second option, eating healthily means making it at home.
This involves a fairly uncomplicated, but task-laden process that takes time, energy and effort:
- Decide what to cook – either by looking up recipes or memory of familiarised recipes.
- Write down or remember ingredients for recipe. As a trip to the shop requires a lot of effort, this will also often requires including everything else that you have run out of on the list too.
- Work up the motivation to actually go to the shop.
- Go to the shop to get food. Depending on circumstance this can involve making decisions about what to buy or not buy based on: what is within budget; what you can manage to carry if going by foot or bicycle; how strong your will is to avoid buying junk food or easy-to-make food.
- Get home and unpack the food.
- Work up the energy to actually cook something.
- Cook the food and eat it.
- Clean up the kitchen afterwards or shove everything in the dishwasher if you can afford the electricity.
I know this reads like a #firstworldproblems list, but the reality is that, for me, this was the step-by-step process I had to go through in my head in order to make food. Sometimes just thinking about it all would overwhelm me so much that I wouldn’t be able to leave the house.
Over time, I found ways around this. I would use the days or hours when I was full of energy to cook massive portions of one-pot dishes that were cheap and simple to make, and then freeze the excess for the bad days. Sometimes the bad periods would last longer than my food supply and I would go through weeks of eating porridge and stewed beans until I had another good day. I’m fortunate that I love cooking. I can’t imagine how I would have coped if I hated cooking. I relied on recipes with lots of beans, tinned tomatoes and root vegetable, which are cheap to buy in Northern Ireland. I would spend maximum £20 per week on food, sometimes as little as £5 when I was really broke.
Having little money can massively impact on mental wellbeing. The constant worry about running out of money, having to count every single penny spent, becomes exhausting. Add this to the anxiety and/or depression already experienced and it becomes almost impossible to escape worry, despair and/or hopelessness.
It’s crucial to understand that tackling severe or non-functioning depression requires a comprehensive approach that takes into account all aspects of an individual’s life. When I was signing on (getting social welfare benefits), I received monthly payments of £220 from the housing benefit office and £245 for unemployment benefit – £465 in total. My monthly outgoings included £275 for rent, £20 mobile phone bill, £18 for TV licence & internet and £15-40 for electricity and gas (depending on season). This would leave me with £110 in winter months to pay for public transport, food, and any emergency expenses that came up. I know it’s not dire poverty, but it also isn’t enough money to live on without constantly worrying about running out. It’s not living, it’s struggling.
There has been so much effort put into challenging social attitudes towards depression and anxiety, but little has been done to address the social inequalities that reinforce the systemic discrimination towards people living with severe mental health issues. It’s time to start thinking about the bigger picture and how we can begin to challenge these imbalances.