World Mental Health Day on 10th October seeks to raise public awareness of the issues surrounding mental health by promoting discussion of illnesses and the need for improved treatment and prevention initiatives. Statistics quoted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for 2002 suggest that 154 million people globally suffer from depression, just one form of mental illness. (1) Helen McNallen, ex-city trader, depression sufferer and founder of the website Depression Can Be Fun, is now publishing a book of the same name, to pass on the important message of depression and mental illness through humour and help people see that with treatment there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Mental health problems are common worldwide, affecting people of all ages and backgrounds. Depression is the most common mental health problem, believed to affect approximately one in four of us at some time in our lives.(2) Despite its prevalence, many people don’t get proper treatment, for several reasons; misdiagnosis, because of inadequate education of professionals in primary care; social stigma which prevents people seeking help; and even because the depression may be so severe that the sufferer is debilitated and unable to seek help.
Traditionally, the western medical model focuses on treating disease states, and so initiatives to tackle mental health problems mostly centre on medical treatment and the latest pharmaceutical intervention to manage symptoms. Several epidemiological studies in recent years, however, have begun to change the way we think about mental health problems, with factors such as lifestyle, stress, financial problems and diet playing a role in the rates of mental health illnesses.
Depression alone costs the UK about £9 billion each year, of which only approximately £370 million is the cost of treatment,(3) demonstrating the extent of the financial burden of man hours lost from sickness leave. Realising the economic implications, several government initiatives are now leaning towards prevention and attempting to promote healthy lifestyles, (4) exercise and good diets as a way of maintaining physical and mental health. Louise Appleby, the government’s mental health tsar is quoted as having admitted that “prevention has got to be better than cure.(5)
Dr Nina Bailey, head nutrition scientist at Igennus Healthcare Nutrition, says, “There are many factors that influence both general and mental health including how much money you make, where you live, your education, the relationships you have, but also what you eat plays an important role in maintaining a chemical balance in the brain and maintaining mood. There is overwhelming epidemiological evidence which suggests that omega-3s, particularly the omega-3 EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) found in oily fish, can protect people from depression,(6) in part by moderating levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, much like antidepressant SSRI drugs and by exerting an anti-inflammatory effect.“(7)
Author of soon-to-be-released Depression Can be Fun and ex-city worker, Helen McNallen, battled with depression and bipolar disorder for 10 years, afraid of acknowledging her problems and afraid of derailing her career. Partly owing to stigma, Helen avoided seeking help for a year.
At the beginning, Helen became withdrawn socially, would work long hours and then sleep the entire weekend. Eventually her breakdown led to her being hospitalised for 2 periods of 3 months on suicide watch and sectioned. After courses of antidepressants which didn’t work for Helen, she had 14 sessions of ECT which affected her memory.
Helen endorses Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and talking therapies, which can get to the route of your problem, and can help you to find new ways of dealing with your issues. Had Helen sought help earlier on, she is sure that she could have avoided the consequences of her bipolar episodes when she tried to battle feelings of emptiness by resorting to obsessive shopping habits, spending on clothes, art and antiques. In a short space of time Helen frittered away over £250,000 of her and her husband’s finances, almost losing their home in the process.
Helen’s actions during her lowest times also took its toll on her marriage. Working in an all-male environment in the city, Helen didn’t want to be perceived as weak and pathetic, and the lower she felt, the more she spent to try fill the void and be happy once again.
Helen gradually battled her way out of her mental health problems and, at the advice of her psychiatrist, now takes the purified omega-3 fish oil supplement Vegepa, prescribed by some doctors and psychiatrists as an add-on or even alternative to antidepressants.
“When I wanted to come off my antidepressants my psychiatrist strongly recommended that I take a good omega supplement, as clinical studies have proven the benefits of fish oil in depression. EPA can significantly alleviate symptoms of depression in its most severe form.” Helen recalled. “I did as he said but didn’t feel any different and almost gave up taking them until a friend of mine who has suffered from ME told me about Vegepa. She told me to take 4 a day. I have never looked back.” Helen is also careful to stick to a healthy life balance, no longer measuring herself by wealth and materialism.
Part of Helen’s recovery involves trying to raise awareness of mental health problems and the consequences of not seeking help, in order to help others not to endure what she went through. Last World Mental Health Day she launched the website Depression Can Be Fun, at the invitation of the NHS at one of their many events around the country. A year on, Helen is publishing a book of the same title, which originates from the ‘black comedy’ of her experiences of manic depression, but is about getting a serious message across and explaining depression with humour and helping those suffering from depression smile in the face of adversity. On this site people can connect with other people with the same issues, as well as seek help from the psychotherapists and doctors at hand to answer your questions. An online forum means that users can communicate with other people on there 24/7.
 World Health Organisation 2002. See http://www.who.int/mental_health/en/.
 World Health Organisation 2001. See http://www.who.int/whr/2001/media_centre/press_release/en/index.html.
 Thomas C, Morris S. Cost of depression among adults in England in 2000. British Journal of Psychiatry 2003; 183: 514–519. See also: ‘The Impact of Depression on Daily Life’, Depression Alliance: http://www.depressionalliance.org
 Government Foresight Project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing: Five Ways to Well Being http://www.foresight.gov.uk/OurWork/ActiveProjects/Mental%20Capital/Welcome.asp
 The Independent, 19th July 2009 See http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/new-strategy-to-bolster-mental-health-care-1752308.html.  Hibbeln JR. Fish consumption and major depression. Lancet 1998; Vol.351:1213
 Haag, Marianne. Essential Fatty Acids and the Brain. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 2003; Vol. 48(3):195-203.