The small things that make a big difference to my mental health

It’s a few years now since depression made an unwelcome appearance in my life. Recovery is a slow and bumpy process, and I always have to be on my guard against my old enemy. To stay well, I need to look after myself, and I’ve gradually built up a list of things I do to manage my mental health.

This World Mental Health Day (10 October) focuses on those small things that can help you, or help you to support someone else. By sharing the things that work for us, we can all help each other. Here’s what works for me. Let me know what helps you.

Writing a diary

I quite often find ‘positive thinking’ a bit grating but one thing I’ve done consistently since I had counselling is to keep a daily diary of positive things. It could be something kind someone has said, or something I’ve enjoyed doing. It works in two ways – it makes me recall the good parts of every day, and, in difficult times, it’s helpful to read back as a reminder that good things do happen on a regular basis.


It’s very important to do something you enjoy as often as possible. For me, that means going birdwatching. I try to arrange fairly regular days when I can take a break from my daily routine and go somewhere to get immersed in birdwatching, whether it’s looking for a particular bird or generally enjoying the distraction of being somewhere different and seeing what’s there.


When I was off work with depression in 2011, I made myself go out for a short walk every day, just to get out of the house. Walking is a healthy combination of fresh air, a change of scene, daylight, distraction and exercise. I still walk as much and as often as I can.

Looking up

It’s easy to get lost in your thoughts and pay no attention to what’s happening around you. I’ve found that looking up at the sky is a rewarding alternative. It somehow helps to give me a little perspective. I like to take pictures of the sky and tree tops on my mobile phone when I’m out for a walk.

Lunch breaks

I often use my lunch break to get a bit of ‘me time’. My mornings are a rush to get the kids ready for school, and my evenings often involve being somewhere – or the kids being somewhere – by a particular time. The middle of the day is a perfect time to get out for a walk or just sit somewhere quiet for a while.


I did some Mind Calm classes this summer and – when I remember to practise – find it helpful in stopping my mind racing and flitting about. Mindfulness is widely talked about as a way of coping with depression, and this is the version I’ve found most helpful so far.


I have a rocky relationship with running. I’ve had some great highs and off-putting lows with it, and really have to force myself to do it, but once I get going I quite enjoy it. I’ve just started going running again after a 14-month break, because I was feeling unfit and could feel myself over-thinking things and getting a bit agitated. Running helps me with both those things.


I find it’s easier to support other people than to look after myself, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. All of the things in my list are a kind of self-care. It’s also worth trying a regular BuddyBox, either for yourself or someone else. BuddyBox is a new initiative from my friends at the Blurt Foundation. Each month, they fill a box with items to help, comfort or inspire anyone who needs a boost.

Five weirdest things I have done in pantomimes

I’ve recently started rehearsing for Beauty and The Beast, my 15th pantomime with my local group, the Ebor Players.

Panto is a bizarre tradition that has given me many fond memories, a great bunch of friends, and a number of surreal experiences that just couldn’t happen in any other setting. Here are five of the weirdest.

Doing a Ministry of Silly Walks dance to a Queen song

Fear makes you do strange things sometimes. In my first panto – Jack and the Beanstalk (1999) – I was playing a hugely unconvincing giant, who was several inches shorter than the dame, wearing a terrible fake beard and a flat cap. I had a scene with my magic harp, in which I said: “Harp! Play me some music. Something soothing.” The music in question ended up being ‘One Vision’ by Queen, as you’d expect. It was the week of the show, and we hadn’t really worked out what I would do while the music was playing. Left with a largely empty stage and a feeling of abject terror, I had to do something, so I did what any self-respecting giant would do in such a situation – a peculiar dance inspired by Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.

Singing as Elvis while dressed as a fairy

In my next panto, Dick Whittington, I was a vision in chiffon – a nightmarish vision, in a blonde wig, white dress and copious glitter. The good fairy had a spell put on her, and was turned into me, the Hairy Fairy. My role was largely to impart wisdom to the hero. There came a moment where I had to advise him to ‘turn again’ – the perfect time for a song. At the after-show party the year before, I’d ended up entertaining/boring the cast and crew in the pub with numerous Elvis songs, and that’s how the musical director and I came to write ‘London Town’. Loosely based on ‘The Wonder of You’, the song was a series of Elvis song puns, and I performed/murdered it in an Elvis wig and shades – still wearing my fairy dress.

Doing a workout with a dancing panda

You know how it is. You wake up after sleeping for 100 years and a panda turns up and makes you dance to ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’ by Wham. Towards the end of Sleeping Beauty (2006), this is exactly what happened. Brought to life by a kindly fairy (naturally), the panda was Princess Beauty’s favourite toy, and was there to lead an extremely invigorating workout when a palace full of drowsy guests, royals and servants (including me as Oddjob, the palace handyman) awoke from their century-long slumber.

Being Vanilla Ice, in beach wear

Nine years after playing the fairy in Dick Whittington, we performed a different version of the show. I played Silly Billy, and was joining the rest of the cast on a trip overseas. We were going to buy or sell spices, I think. Rapper Vanilla Ice had recently teamed up with Jedward for a new version of his hit Ice Ice Baby, and the comedy duo that year came up with the ingenious idea of doing ‘Spice Spice Baby’. But they needed someone to be Vanilla Ice, and that’s where I came in. My obvious rapper credentials were seriously compromised by my outrageously colourful Hawaiian beachwear, and adding a baseball cap just made it look sillier. But given that we were three men who couldn’t really dance or rap, doing a rap and a dance routine, my apparel was the least of my worries…

Dad dancing as Darth Vader

Our 2014 panto, a Long Time Ago, was a tribute to the science fiction greats, and so it came to pass that I was playing the villain’s psychiatrist, Dr Vader. I got to dress up in a proper Darth Vader costume, thus fulfilling a boyhood dream. But there was a catch. At the time, a popular YouTube clip featured Darth Vader busting some crazy dance moves with some Stormtroopers to MC Hammer’s ‘U Can’t Touch This’ – and yours truly was charged with recreating this in the panto. The result was an improvised dad-dancing masterclass. The mask was a blessing.

Here's me as Dr Vader, hanging out with Yoda. Picture by Jo Curran.

Here’s me as Dr Vader, hanging out with Yoda.
Picture by Jo Curran.

A decade of daily dad daftness

It’s ten years since I sat in a hospital room, cuddling my tiny newborn daughter, and a nurse asked me to be quiet because I was singing too loudly – probably the first time I showed ‘embarrassing dad’ potential.

Her tenth birthday, and my son’s seventh, have prompted me to ponder the ups and downs of my first decade of fatherhood.

There are moments with kids when you feel so proud you find yourself welling up. There are times you laugh so much you find yourself in tears again. There are teeth-clenching, knuckle-chewing moments when your children – or someone else’s – drive you up the wall. There are times of great elation and despair.

But, by and large, I think being a parent is often about the funny little things you find yourself doing every day – like having to protect a giant cookie in a rain storm.

Shortly before her tenth birthday, my daughter declared that she didn’t like cake, and my almost-hysterical response of “You don’t like CAKE?” couldn’t persuade her otherwise. Thankfully, somewhere in my brain a little light went on, and I remembered that Millie’s Cookies do giant, personalised cookies.

So, the Monday before her birthday, I marched into town at lunchtime, and ordered the cookie, with blue and white icing (everything used to be pink and purple…) and a suitable birthday greeting, and arranged to pick it up on Friday.

Friday came around, and I headed back into town, coat-free, sunglasses on and enjoying the sunshine. I examined the cookie, which looked very appetising, paid, and carried it off, packed in a cardboard box and a big paper carrier bag.

But there was trouble brewing. The skies were darkening above the city centre. Like a jeep fleeing a twister in a disaster movie, I tried to outrun the increasingly ominous clouds, but they were heading my way, and I was only five minutes into my twenty-minute walk back to the office when I felt the first spot of rain.

I cast a worried glance at the bag. It was gaping open at the top, and holding the handles wouldn’t do enough to stop the rain getting in and soaking the box – which could mean catastrophic cookie damage.

The rain was getting heavier. Storming ahead as quickly as I could, I was a rather tragic, desperate figure, both hands clutching the top of the bag, hell-bent on complete cookie protection.

Only halfway back, the sky burst all over me. Gritting my teeth and shielding my precious cargo, I marched tenaciously on.

By the time I’d arrived back at the office, I looked pretty pathetic – and the rain had almost stopped. Like a bald, bargain-basement Mr Darcy, I staggered inside with my shirt completely soaked through.

But the cookie box was perfectly dry. Dad mission accomplished. Later that day, a happy little girl was delighted with her surprise, and I enjoyed basking in the glow of one of those rare, special moments when I knew I’d got everything just right.

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With my children at Fountains Abbey

With my children at Fountains Abbey

Why birdwatching is good for my mental health

One of the good things to come out of my second bout of depression four years ago was the revelation that going birdwatching could help me in my recovery.

It was October 2011 and I had been signed off work. My mood would inevitably worsen if I was alone at home with my thoughts for too long, so I made sure I got out of the house once a day, even if only to walk to the shop and back.

The combination of fresh air, daylight and exercise seemed to do me good. Taking my binoculars – and sometimes my camera – with me gave me an added purpose.

One of the best pieces of advice I was given during my counselling and GP appointments was to make sure I found time to do something I enjoyed, and birding certainly fell into that category.

Now, if I feel stressed or anxious, or if I can feel my mood darkening – even if I just feel stuck in a rut – I make time to get out birding, and it helps to distract me and give me something positive to do. I find it relaxing but also exciting, because the wonder of birding is that you never know what you will see next. That sense of anticipation – something to look forward to and get excited about – is a feeling that can get lost in the spirit-crushing mire of depression.

Later that autumn, the possibility of seeing something new took me to Filey, on the Yorkshire coast, about an hour’s drive from home. I’d wanted to make the trip earlier, as it’s a great spot for autumn migrants, but I hadn’t felt up to it. When I felt I had enough energy, I set off with the intention of walking along Filey Brigg, a rocky outcrop that juts out into the North Sea. That walk alone was worth the trip, as a fellow birder –one armed with a telescope – pointed out a velvet scoter bobbing on the waves with a group of common scoters. It was a first for me.

Better was to come. I called in for some food at the café in the country park on the clifftop, where the local ornithological group kept a record of its sightings. Fresh up on the blackboard was something that quickened my pulse – a glossy ibis had been seen at Filey Dams nature reserve.

Pleasingly, I arrived there just in time for a cracking view of this elegant and rather exotic bird, and enjoyed watching it for five minutes before it flew off. A frustrated group of birders arrived just after it had gone. I felt a small glow of satisfaction that I had been there and seen it for myself.

I should have stopped there but I was on a roll. I carried on to Flamborough, a renowned rarity hotspot further down the coast. There, I saw nothing, my legs started to feel heavy and I was overcome with tiredness. I’d overdone it (see top tips below).

Here are my top tips for how to approach birding if you’re experiencing depression:

  • A good birding trip is a great way to lift your mood, but it can also be too demanding if you’re not feeling well, so don’t try to do too much. I had a heavy cold while off with depression, but one day heard that common gulls (a bogey species at the time) could easily be seen at a site across town. I dragged myself out, got blown about by a strong, cold wind, joylessly saw the common gulls and wheezed all the way home, feeling thoroughly miserable. It really wasn’t worth it.
  • Try to keep your birding trips short until you feel stronger and more able to try travelling further. I enjoyed some very satisfying and rewarding local birding, and my slower pace actually helped me to see more on familiar patches, such as the discovery of yellow wagtails in a field close to home and some lovely views of yellowhammers and golden plovers.
  • While you’re restricted in what you can manage, enjoy what you can see and hear, rather than worrying about what you might be missing or can’t identify – there’s no point adding to your stress levels. You can learn songs, behaviour and subtleties of plumage that you might never have noticed before if you hadn’t stopped and savoured the moment. Taking time to appreciate the colours of a male chaffinch or the song of a dunnock while you’re walking down the road can be as rewarding as something harder earned.
  • Do some of your birding alone and some with other people whose company you enjoy. Complete solitude isn’t always good for you if you’re suffering from depression. A friend took me out birding to one of our favourite local wetland reserves one weekend and an obliging water rail strolled out close to the hide where we were sitting – literally seconds after I’d mentioned that I’d never seen one – before sloping off into the reeds again. If I’d stayed at home and not made the effort to go out, I wouldn’t have this happy memory to recall.
  • Depression doesn’t have to stop you getting out and about. The combination of exercise, fresh air, a change of scenery and doing something you enjoy means birding can be very beneficial. Keep it simple, do what you feel able to do, and quit while you’re ahead.

A buddy in the battle against depression

Last summer, I took a great big leap out of my comfort zone and did some public speaking at a place in London that I’d never been to before.

I am not a keen public speaker, but on this occasion I had something to say, about something important, so my nerves just had to play second fiddle.

It seemed appropriate that the event in question was taking place in Churchill’s War Rooms, as my talk was about a battle. A very personal battle. It was about depression and self-care – that constant battle to look after yourself when you’re in depression’s cruel grip.

My talk was based on what I’d learned from my own experiences of depression, and was part of an event organised by the Blurt Foundation, an organisation close to my heart.

Blurt supports people with depression, and its brilliant founders, Jayne and Dom Hardy, are always coming up with great ideas to help other people. One such idea was Blurt’s email mentoring scheme, which was a great help to me when I needed to blurt out how I was feeling to someone who would understand, without having to worry my family and friends.

I’ve discovered in recent months that I need a ‘psychological first aid kit’ (as my counsellor put it) – a checklist of things I will do to help myself stay well – self-care, in fact. In my case, that’s things like going walking and birdwatching, watching terrible-quality disaster movies, drawing, writing in my diary and trying to keep up with some meditation to help me relax and live in the present.

The latest great idea from Blurt is partly about self-care and partly about caring for someone else. It’s called BuddyBox.

It’s a simple concept. There’s a box, with things in it that might help you relax or sleep, or could comfort, inspire or surprise you. You can either buy BuddyBoxes as a gift for a friend who’s struggling, to show you’re thinking of them and to give them a small boost, or you can buy them for yourself, to help you gently fight that battle I was talking about earlier.

Now, Blurt will be the first people to tell you that depression cannot be treated with things – but things like those found in a BuddyBox can be a chink of light in an otherwise dark day.

So, what’s in a BuddyBox? Well, the contents are different each month, but I can tell you what was in mine:

  • A box of chamomile tea – perfect timing as I’m cutting down on caffeine at the moment. I’m having a cup as I write this and very nice it is too.
  • Some sleep balm, and a lavender-scented bag, both to aid sleep. I’m not having difficulty sleeping at the moment, but when I was having regular bouts of insomnia I’d have welcomed any new tricks to help me get back to sleep.
  • My favourite thing – a mindfulness colouring book and some colouring pencils. I’ve always loved drawing and colouring things in, and earlier this year I bought myself a colouring book (a grown-up one, of course). The idea is that colouring distracts you and gets you doing something you enjoy – which helps you stay in the moment, rather than worrying about the past or future. Unfortunately, the book I bought brought out the perfectionist in me, as the patterns were intricate, detailed and required great concentration – but the one in my BuddyBox is perfect. There’s a range of different patterns, some that need very little focus and some that I can get more absorbed in.

BuddyBox is available from the Blurt Foundation by subscription. You can choose to subscribe monthly, quarterly, six-monthly or annually. Read what other people thought of their first BuddyBox.

My BuddyBox from the Blurt Foundation.

My BuddyBox from the Blurt Foundation.

What if…?

One morning, as I stood outside my son’s classroom, he said to me: “Daddy, there’s a massive tree in the little playground, and it’s bigger than a giant!”

“Really?” I asked.

“It’s AWESOME!” he said.

For young children, the world is full of possibilities and discoveries and excitement. Everything is, as the Lego song says, awesome.

But as we get older, we often stop daring to believe anything is possible, because we’re scared of failing – understandably a lot of the time. I think the opportunities for awesomeness do start to shrink once you have to earn money and pay bills, and feel the burden of responsibility on your shoulders.

We become ‘what-iffers’, forever worrying about what could go wrong if we take a chance on something. “What if it doesn’t work? What if someone gets hurt? What if they don’t like it? What if it rains?” And our fretting over ‘What if…?” ruins the moment.

In Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, chocolate-making genius Willy Wonka is flying his glass elevator through space, and is proposing to land on the famous Space Hotel USA. His fellow travellers have their doubts…

‘What if they come after us?’ said Mr Bucket, speaking for the first time. ‘What if they capture us?’ said Mrs Bucket. ‘What if they shoot us?’ said Grandma Georgina. ‘What if my beard were made of green spinach?’ cried Mr Wonka. ‘Bunkum and tummyrot! You’ll never get anywhere if you go about what-iffing like that. Would Columbus have discovered America if he’d said “What if I sink on the way over? What if I meet pirates? What if I never come back?” He wouldn’t even have started.’

I’ve often been guilty of what-iffing, especially when the commentator in my head gets the better of me. Self-doubt can hold me back and prevent me from doing things.

We can either let ‘What if…?’ hold us back, ignore it (difficult), or turn it on its head, and imagine the possibilities instead of the worst-case scenario (even more difficult, if that’s not your brain’s default setting). A friend recently showed me this lovely little poem by Erin Hanson:

There is freedom waiting for you,

On the breezes of the sky,

And you ask “What if I fall?”

Oh but my darling,

What if you fly?

It’s four years since I posted my first Dippyman blog and overcame a ‘What if I fall?’ moment of my own. I still hear those ‘What ifs’ in my head every time I post a blog. What if nobody reads it? What if it’s no good? What if someone hates it and starts an argument?

But now, I know I can counter those ‘What ifs’ with a different kind of ‘What if…?’. So what if nobody reads it? What if it’s no good? What if someone hates it and starts an argument? What’s the worst that could happen, really?

It’s not comfortable, and it doesn’t come naturally, but it’s getting easier to think of the right kind of ‘What if…?’

I’ve written loads of times on the scary subject of depression, and nothing terrible has happened to me as a result – quite the opposite. I’ve even written about my faith (only once – I’m not that brave).

Many, many great things would not have happened to me if I’d allowed my what-iffing to stop me writing this blog.

What if I stop what-iffing?

Silencing the commentator in my head

There is a commentator who sits in my head and witters.

He commentates on everything I do and everything that’s happening to me and around me. He’s particularly keen on wittering about things that haven’t happened yet – things in the future that he thinks I could and should be worrying about; things that could cause me stress.

There is a thin line between good planning and excessive fretting. My commentator shows no regard for this. Does something need planning? Well, why not worry about it at times when you can’t actually do anything about it? How about in the middle of the night?

He has his advantages. Sometimes he’ll pipe up with great ideas or witty remarks. But a lot of the time, I wish he would just shut up, because his accelerating rambling feeds my anxiety and prevents me living in the moment and taking one day at a time – something I know I need to do but often find impossible.

Sometimes he prattles on at such speed and volume it’s just a noise – a wall of sound. I can’t bear any other noise and can’t take in what people are saying. The din can prevent me enjoying what I’m doing. His chuntering fills my head, which means anything new trying to get into my headspace feels like an intruder. Sometimes my brain is so full, it overflows and I get forgetful.

If he gets bored of commentating on the present and future, he likes to play action replays. His collection of clips seems to concentrate on moments of stress or injustice, or things I’ve done wrong. Depending on how recent the incidents are, they can lead to futile yet destructive imaginary arguments. If he’s feeling particularly destructive, he conjures up imaginary scenarios to have imaginary arguments about.

These unwelcome tricks are things I’ve been learning to deal with over the past five years, when I first started trying to get to grips with depression. We all worry about stuff sometimes and get nervous about things we have to do. It’s normal. But when it’s the kind of ever-present worrying that leads to anxiety and heightens my risk of a return to depression, as it threatened to do last summer, I know I have to do something about it. I’m getting better at recognising the danger signs, taking action and looking after myself.

I am always keen to try new ways of silencing the gibbering fool in my brain. I’ve been trying to retrain him so he says positive things and replays positive clips. One way I’ve been doing this is to keep a diary of positive things each day, and reading back through what I’ve written to remind myself of things I could easily have forgotten forever. It’s a bit like sending a calming co-commentator into the commentary box, like the classic Formula One commentary team of Murray Walker – breathless, excited, verging on hysterical – and James Hunt, complementing Walker with a more thoughtful, observant style.

I try to find more time to do things I enjoy, like bird watching and watching films.

And, as I said before, I’m trying to live more in the present, so I’ve started going to something called Mind Calm, which is teaching me some basics about meditation. The principles make great sense – it’s about not being ruled by your thoughts, and being aware of what is happening in the moment – but my biggest challenge is to find time to practise regularly enough to make a difference. I’ve tried a couple of apps and books on mindfulness, but haven’t made those work for me so far.

My commentator has worked hard over the years. I think he would welcome the chance to put his feet up and take it easy. This stage of my recovery is about helping him to do just that.


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