Mental illness rarely makes a case for being beautiful, and glamorising it tends to lead down a slippery path, failing to aid a fundamental shift in our understanding, so printing a neuroimage on a t-shirt might seem a little counterproductive. But images likes this form a part of a coping strategy when a depressive episode strikes - complete with ugly crying, empty cereal bowls gathering mould around the flat, and emergency calls at 2am - reminding me not to judge myself and I'm not making it up. Perhaps this story will help you too.
During a depressive episode, it's surprisingly easy for negative thought patterns to reinforce each other until I've convinced myself that I'm completely worthless, disgusting and too difficult a human for anyone to love or accept.
When this happens, there are few things that can stare down the monsters in my mind than the reassurance that thoughts are only thoughts, not the truth. And that there's an imbalance of chemicals in my brain that is manifesting itself in weight fluctuations (though, sadly, never the direction I would prefer), psoriasis, nosebleeds, insomnia and suicidal thinking (among other, equally-unglamourous symptoms).
What began as a means to soothe my thoughts, soon evolved into a frantic need to understand the inner workings of my own brain. Despite a diagnosis by a host of healthcare professionals, years of therapy and a cycles of depressive episodes as regular as clockwork, I was still convinced that it was "all in my head", that I was just "lazy" and "using depression as an excuse", that I needed to "stop whining" and "snap out of it" - scolding words that I would never voice to anyone other than myself. Encouraged by my therapist, I peered into the face of an uncomfortable truth these unforgiving words revealed: that I judged myself for having a mental illness.
Though this probably wasn't surprising having grown up around a particularly unforgiving family when it came to vulnerability and who had in the past regarded breakdowns as "pathetic". So my next task was to dutifully attempt to educate my immediate family on why, I promised, I wasn't just being lazy when I slept until 2pm and that I already hated myself enough for not functioning like a normal human so, please, have a little compassion.
And that's when neuroimagery saved my immediate relationships.
Depression and Neuroimaging
A hoard of studies have demonstrated the relationship between mental illness and its physiological effects on the brain. In 2001, Wayne C Drevets pointed out in his research, Neuroimaging and neuropathological studies of depression: implications for the cognitive-emotional features of mood disorders, that in the brains of patients suffering with the melancholic subset of a Major Depressive Disorder, neuroimaging showed an abnormal cerebral blood flow (CBF) and glucose metabolism in the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and the prefrontal cortex (PFC), among other equally-wordy regions.
Now, for those of us not versed in neuroscientific nomenclature, the amygdala is responsible for controlling and regulating emotional responses (your 'fight or flight' response). The ACC is responsible for attention and sensory processing, and the PFC plans complex cognitive behaviour (including decision-making and moderating social behaviour).
So some pretty important parts of the brain.
The research showed that activity in the amygdala increased (dose of anxiety with that depression? Why not?!), while activity in the ACC and PFC both decreased (can't concentrate or make simple decisions anymore? Yep.)
Anxiety and Design Inspiration
Meanwhile, in 2013, Kay Tye, an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences and member of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, led a team of fellow scientists to discover the formerly-shady link between the amygdala and hippocampus (involved in emotional processing and memory function). Their study produced this beautiful image showing 'the tips of long neuronal extensions from the amygdala (green) contact neurons of the hippocampus (blue). This communication pathway helps to modulate anxiety.'
Naturally, I couldn't help but get creative..
So when someone accuses you of making up a mood disorder, point at your t-shirt, tell them of Drevet,Tye and their cohort's study into the affects of depression and anxiety on the brain, and reassure yourself that you deserve compassion as you manage your mental health.
If you are based in the Leeds or Horsforth area, Leeds MIND offers income-based counselling and psychotherapy sessions, as well as free support services and crisis support.
If you need information and practical advice on depression, you can call UK MIND's information line on 0300 123 3393 (9am–6pm, Mon-Fri, except bank holidays), if you're in the UK.
You can call the Samaritans for confidential support if you're experiencing feelings of distress or despair on 08457 90 90 90 (24-hour helpline).