James Murphy is a successful social entrepreneur and founder of Engage International, an initiative to build a global community to promote employee engagement, as well as collaboration and innovation. James lives in London, U.K. with his wife Sarah and comes across as a happy, well-adjusted man.
But James has had at least two serious episodes of depression and anxiety. For weeks he hid his mental illness from those close to him, including his wife.
James secretly tried to cope by burying himself in work, refusing to ask for help, and drinking more and more each day. However, eventually his illness became incapacitating and he was forced to reach out and seek help.
In time for Canada’s Let’s Talk Day on Jan. 31 and the U.K.’s Time to Talk Day on Feb. 1, James bravely shares his story with Sheelagh Caygill. James’ hope is that if you or anyone you know is struggling in silence with mental health issues, you’ll take the first step and reach out for help and support.
In 2016 you unhappily left two businesses you’d played a large role in. Did you talk to anyone – including your wife – about your concerns and the direction in which things were headed? Or was it pretty much a keep-it-to-myself tight-lipped approach?
I hid how I was feeling from everyone including my wife. This only made it worse. I was being destroyed by focusing on the past. I was feeling more and more isolated. I was embarrassed, and I was acting irrationally, getting angry, frustrated and so anxious I found it impossible to focus.
Looking back, I have suffered with mental health issues for years, but kept quiet and have only recently started dealing with issues that I have struggled with for 20 years.
On Christmas Day 2016 I had a breakdown. I couldn’t stop crying and this was the first time that my family really saw me like this and they asked me to get help.
The past 12 months have been a real struggle trying to deal with mental health problems. The struggle ended recently with me completing rehab 10 days ago.
I’m very grateful that you have asked me to do this interview. I’m hoping that if I share my experience people can relate and not feel as alone as I did.
Ignoring symptoms of depression
Before you reached out for help, you had difficulty sleeping, lack of energy and bouts of crying. These sound like classic symptoms of depression. Would you define yourself as being depressed at that time?
I was diagnosed with anxiety, but I had several mental health problems. I was clearly depressed, I wasn’t sleeping and I was having flashbacks to an incident more than 10 years ago when I was stabbed. In this state, I started drinking, and it was far too much towards the end of 2016.
I think mental health is often misdiagnosed, not through any fault of doctors. But in my case I could not explain how I was feeling and to an extent hid certain things because I was embarrassed and scared.
How long did this go on for before you sought help? And what stopped you from seeking help sooner? Fear? Embarrassment? A belief that as a man you had to be strong?
It was far too long before I asked for help. I was fortunate enough to have a family that asked me to get help. Twelve months ago I started counselling but still refused to go to a doctor.
I started to feel better but then a few things started going wrong and I struggled to cope. I started getting worse; I was starting to obsess over negative things, and I was filled with irrational resentment.
My mental health started to deteriorate, I was starting to have some very dark thoughts and soon was right back where I was before I went to counselling.
I hid this from everyone. I felt I had failed, that I had let everyone down. My anxiety got so bad I was struggling to function. I felt I was cursed and I was consumed with self-pity.
It was my wife who booked me an emergency doctor’s appointment and forced me to go. I was prescribed anti-anxiety tablets and they started working; but soon I was back to square one. I was just transferring my focus from one thing to another.
For example, I liked being angry because I could control it. But I had increasingly obsessive behaviour, and to make it worse I was drinking far too much as I was very uncomfortable being me.
The truth is I needed more help. I had tried to get better by myself and I was getting worse. I didn’t have the resilience to cope with everyday life. I had to change, so I choose to go to rehab for 30 days towards the end of last year.
Adopting tools to help me cope
Mindfulness and group therapy played a key role in your recovery. Can you tell us a bit more about how each one helped you regain your strength, focus, and sense of well-being?
The truth is I needed to make significant changes in my life. What I was doing wasn’t working.
It had got so bad that I was taking hours to do something that should take a few minutes. I was obsessively rewriting emails, because of anxiety.
My mind was racing the whole time and I was humming and constantly fidgeting. I have learned that this humming and restless leg syndrome is my brain trying to ground itself.
Meditation has really helped as essentially you are focusing on one of the five senses. I struggled with this idea, the thought of sitting do nothing for 20 terrified me. I needed constant stimulation. It was hard at first, but there’s no such thing as a bad meditation and it takes practice. I am better for it and much calmer.
I have learned a lot about Eastern philosophies, and this approach is really working for me. I’m doing Yoga, Tai Chi and have been doing Muay Thai everyday.
There is a long journey ahead of me, but I feel confident that I have learned the tools to cope better.
After living through such a difficult time, do you feel as though you’d quickly be able to recognize the symptoms of depression, or anxiety if you were to struggle again?
Because of my journey over the past 12 months, I think I’m better equipped I think I understand my triggers, but most importantly I’m open to accepting help. If people around me spot my obsessive behaviour re-emerging they will tell me and I won’t kick off; instead I will take a good look at myself and try to stop it.
I can’t blame all my behaviour on mental illness though at times I have just acted like an idiot. Part of my recovery is learning about my character flaws of which there are quite a few, not making excuses, and taking responsibility for my actions and making amends if needed.
My wife saved my life
What role did your wife play in your recovery?
Sarah saved my life; this phrase is often used but in this case, it’s true. She’s always been there when I was the hardest person to have around. She makes me feel that things can get better and together things will get better.
One of the hardest things was I could see how I was hurting everyone around me. I was very selfish at times. All my family and friends have been so supportive and I am eternally grateful.
During your mental health struggles, you did something that’s recognized by professional caregivers as being damaging to our well-being: comparing ourselves to others. You asked yourself: “If other people have far more difficult lives than I, why can’t I cope?”. There’s been so much written on the dangers of this and the misery it can cause. Now that you’re feeling better, what is your take on comparing ourselves to others?
No good can ever come of it, but I still do it. It’s very hard to stop though. Separating yourself from your thoughts is something that has really helped me. You can’t control your thoughts; we don’t know where they come from – they just pop into our heads.
It’s a very simple idea, but it took me a while to understand, but when I got it I became so much calmer.
I think it is a common problem because of the perceived difference between mental and physical health, and I think this feeling of “Why am I different?” is a huge part of it.
James, I know that you advocate for employees supporting each other and keeping an eye out for those who may be struggling. At the same time, some work cultures can be cutthroat and one person under-performing or taking time off will be seen as an advantage by another.
How should workplaces deal with highly competitive environments to ensure that the stress of productivity and competition do not cause illness in solid performers.
This is where management needs to get involved. Great leaders understand that compassion and kindness will improve teams while victimising and negativity will damage teams. We are stronger together and while healthy competition is good competition, at the expense of someone’s health is never acceptable.
So many people continue to struggle in silence with mental health issues. What are your thoughts on the stigma that’s still attached to mental illness? Why does the stigma remain despite all our knowledge and efforts to talk about mental illness. What steps we can take to remove it?
There is a perceived difference between mental health and physical health. In my situation with the shame I felt – this contributed to self-medicating by drinking too much.
The truth is we all have mental health and we all have physical health. It is easier to relate to physical problems as everyone has had a headache or cold. As with many of the problems in this world, a lack of understanding of mental health is the problem.
Very few people want others to suffer, but not everyone knows how to help somebody suffering from mental health problems or addiction.
Often employees in lower paying jobs can have a particularly difficult time with mental illness. Many jobs still have no sick pay, and therapy or drug treatments can be expensive. What must employers do to fulfill their social responsibilities so that employees get the help and support they need?
We should try and nurture relationships where people feel able to say they are struggling. So, the work needs to begin before a prescription.
However, some people will need medical help, either medicine or counselling. People need to have access to affordable healthcare, it doesn’t matter if it’s an operation or asthma pump. A society is not sustainable if people can’t afford healthcare.
A business is the same. It is simply good business to have a healthy workforce.
Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about
I was really moved by one of your concluding statements: “Be kind to everyone as everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” Clearly your ordeal affected you. Would you agree that from it you’ve become more compassionate and empathetic?
In the past year, I have been fortunate enough to speak in front of hundreds of people, from all around the world. Most people probably won’t remember what I said, but I end by saying this because I believe it is the most important thing.
It is Robin Williams’ quote. He suffered with mental illness and sadly took his own life. So, if people remember one thing I think it should be this.
To the person who’s reading this and struggling with mental illness, what do you say?
It’s OK to not be OK. There is no need to be ashamed. Please talk to someone and accept help.
I also want to say thanks to my Councillor Chris and all the amazing people at Hope Rehab. It changed my life for the better and I’m eternally grateful.
Resources: If you are struggling with with depression, anxiety, or any mental health problem, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor or health professional. As well, reach out to a supportive family member or friend and talk to them.
For those unsure about how to support someone with a mental health condition, look up your region’s mental health support website, speak to a community health provider, or read through these articles which offer excellent advice on how to support a loved one who struggling with mental illness.
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