InFocus: Ben Lawrie, mental health campaigner and Wellbeing committee representative

Ben Lawrie, mental health activist (Photo: Lauren Charlton)

Having suffered with depression since childhood, the second year psychology and IR student is currently working alongside independent filmmaker, Stuart Burns, to make a documentary about mental health issues, A Confession of Depression, due to be released later this year.

Mr Lawrie is also busy preparing for the 2017 Council Elections in which he plans to run as a member of the Scottish Liberal Democrat Party (Lib Dems) for a position on Angus Council in his home ward of Monifieth and Sidlaw.

To many, this may seem an unlikely fusion of interests, however Mr Lawrie explained that, for him, politics and mental health are one:  “I joined [the Lib Dems] in December 2013 and a big part of their manifesto at the time was mental health so they were the party for me. I didn’t really see any other parties talking about it.”

It was using the platform which the Lib Dems had given him (the Angus Lib Dem blog), that Mr Lawrie first began to raise awareness of mental illnesses, hoping to address some of the stigma surrounding the issue. At 5 am on 30 March 2015, whilst actually suffering from insomnia (a symptom of depression), Mr Lawrie wrote a “bare honest account” of his own experiences with the illness, including details of a suicide attempt made in 2013, which he had kept secret until then.

Though he had wanted to write on the subject of mental health for some time, The Sun’s media coverage of Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings co-pilot who is thought to have deliberately crashed into the Alps and killed all 150 people on board the flight, gave the student a “starting point.”

Over a year later, Mr Lawrie is still able to clearly remember both the headline, “Madman in Cockpit”, and the tabloid’s “emphasis on the fact that he [Lubitz] had depression,” explaining: “I was struggling to talk to people about depression because of this stigma and here’s The Sun portraying depressed people to be absolute raving lunatics, killing loads of people.”

Conscious of this stigma and with only his mum, dad and a few very close friends aware of his depression, publishing the blog entry proved “nerve-wracking” for Mr Lawrie, who was “stressed” and “paranoid” as to how the rest of his family and friends would react.

For others to know about it, that “I’d self-harmed and tried to commit suicide – that was quite worrying. I thought they’d think I was a freak, some weirdo.”

The next day, however, Mr Lawrie was “relieved” to discover that, though his article had attracted “a lot more attention” than he’d initially thought it would, it had not garnered a single negative response. In a short space of time, the student received countless messages of support from family, friends and even strangers. He was also approached by newspapers, magazines and websites who all wanted to share his story.

Mr Lawrie described this response as “overwhelming” and “amazing”: “There’s one thing writing an article and your gran telling you ‘that’s great!’, but when strangers are coming to you and saying “This has really helped me. I thought I was the only one feeling this’, you think ‘Wow.’”

Particularly touching was a message from the mother of Mr Lawrie’s former classmate, who wanted to thank the student for better enabling her to understand her son’s depression: “I was helping parents to support their kids – that was really good for me,” he said.

Mr Lawrie also went on to exchange messages of support with several girls from a nearby school, who were struggling with similar issues: “Obviously I’m not a professional, but it was good for them to have someone who understood. It was good to make a difference for them.”

Describing the blog as a “good source of strength” for him too, Mr Lawrie claims to have derived a “renewed sense of purpose from mental health campaigning.”

This, combined with a lifelong interest in psychology (perhaps owing to his own struggles with depression and an internal desire to “understand it”), pushed the student to continue with his activism, even moving towards a career as a psychotherapist: “My life goal is always just to try and make people happy, even with politics – I’m in politics to make people’s lives better and I’m in psychology to make people’s lives better.”

In this vein, Mr Lawrie was appointed as Mental Health Representative on the Wellbeing Committee earlier this month.

Using this position, he plans to run a “Don’t man up – open up” campaign, encouraging men to disregard gender norms and actively “seek help and talk about” their mental health issues.

He also hopes to organise animal therapy sessions around the exam diet, saying: “I think we need more excuses to pet animals when we’re stressed.”

Crucial for Mr Lawrie, however, is the “legitimacy” and “authority” which he feels this position gives his campaign, granting him a larger platform from which to discuss his own experiences and raise awareness.

A Confession of Depression, the documentary which Mr Lawrie is making in collaboration with Stuart Burns, also focuses on the student’s personal experiences with depression and anxiety, though Mr Lawrie has made a conscious effort to “do other things with [the documentary]”, including giving publicity to various charities.

Nightline, its work and its director, Nick Farrer, make an appearance in the documentary, as does Deborah Chapman, organiser of the “How it Felt” enterprise, which uses puppets to promote discussion of mental health and other issues amongst children.

The documentary also runs a feature on Student Minds, including a personal interview with its former President, Laura Briody, who discusses her experiences with anorexia and bulimia.

Mr Lawrie said: “She talks about it really well. I always end up getting a bit teary when I listen to her because she’s been through a lot but she’s such an inspiration. She does a lot of great mental health work.”

The student also had Willie Rennie,  leader  of  the  Scottish  Lib Dems, on the documentary as a guest, discussing what politicians can do to help issues relating to mental health and why the Lib Dems focus on this in their manifesto.

Mr Lawrie said: “I don’t want all the parties fighting, saying ‘We’re the party of mental health.’ I want them to band together and say ‘let’s work together on this’, which is hard to get in politics.”

Mr Lawrie is attempting to instigate change himself, having recently stood in a by-election for the Scottish Youth Parliament, with a manifesto geared towards raising awareness of and supporting those with mental illnesses.

Though unsuccessful in his candidacy, Mr Lawrie is currently formulating policies based around mental health issues in preparation for next year’s Council Elections.

This includes campaigning to prevent the Mulberry Unit, an inpatient psychiatric ward at Stracathro, from being closed down. The student stressed that its closure would force the people of Angus to travel “all the way to Dundee” for similar mental health facilities.

Mr Lawrie has also been working alongside Melanie Atkins, the director of a charity called Relax Kids, Monifieth, which teaches  primary school children “mindfulness, meditation and coping methods”.

The charity’s pre-emptive approach appeals to Mr Lawrie who believes: “we tend to wait until people break down and then pick up the pieces. I think we need to be going into schools and equipping them with coping methods before things get stressful”.

With Mr Lawrie having suffered from depression for as long as he can remember, this is perhaps unsurprising. He told The Saint: “I’ve got memories of going to my Mum when I was wee and saying, ‘Mum, I feel sad but don’t know why’ – obviously when you feel sad there’s usually something causing it, but I couldn’t quite pin it.”

It was not until Mr Lawrie was seventeen and experiencing lethargy, insomnia and a severe lack of concentration alongside consistent low mood, however, that he sought professional help, having not realised he might have depression until this point “because it was something I’d always just lived with, I never thought anything of it.”

It was around this time that Mr Lawrie made a suicide attempt, overdosing on co-codamol pills while his then girlfriend was sleeping. He described the drugs as making him feel “really stoned, sedated, drifting in and out of consciousness, everything was really hazy”.

The student also remembers how painful the experience was: “My stomach really hurt. I was thinking ‘She’s going to wake up and I’m not’, but I did wake up and I felt shit. I felt really sick. Every time I ate, it just came up. […] I felt really fragile the next day.”

With a psychiatrist who “seemed really eager to just put me on medication” and four months between appointments, Mr Lawrie resorted to dealing with his depression and anxiety himself: “I spend a lot of time just thinking really hard about it, just thinking through things, introspection.

“I can learn about myself, learn where it comes from, try and deal with it.”

In spite of this, Mr Lawrie still suffers from depression and knows that there is no magical cure.

When asked how to best deal with the illness and what advice he would give to anyone suffering from it, he smiled sadly and shook his head: “I don’t know. I wish I knew. I’d use it myself.”

He went on, however: “When you’re going through the darker moments, literally all you have to do is hold on, just all you have to do is make it through the night and things will get better from there. I’ve actually got one of those posters in my room of one of those cats holding onto a tree branch saying ‘Hang on in there’.

“Sometimes the only thing you’ve got to focus on is surviving for a bit, just exist and you’ll be fine.”



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