Gazette reporter Matt Smart spent the second half of 2018 trying to come to terms with how he was being affected by mental health struggles. In a special piece he opens up about his experience.

Regular readers of the Gazette may remember a campaign we did almost three years ago called Let's Talk About It. Its intention was simple - shine a spotlight on the issues surrounding mental health in North Devon, highlight some of the amazing services we have and - more importantly than anything else - get people talking about mental health.

At the time I was a 'fresh-faced' reporter at the Gazette, still learning shorthand having started the job six months earlier. After producing a couple of stories for the series, I visited a lady called Karen, who had battled depression on and off for around 15 years.

We sat down at her kitchen table and amongst the small-talk she asked if I had suffered with any mental health problems. At the time I was fortunate enough to be able to say I had not.

Things can change though, which is why I've written this piece. Last year I was one of the roughly one in 10 people in North Devon and Torridge to go and see a doctor about depression.

Sometimes there's a 'why' when it comes to low mood, but a lot of the time there isn't. On paper I'm one of those people who 'hasn't got anything to be depressed about', with a caring and supportive family, partner and an (arguably) nice job.

I would not be able to tell you why I was feeling so constantly tired, irritable and unmotivated. Sometimes your brain doesn't need a reason to turn against itself and start feeding you negative thoughts, and I soon found myself regularly having feelings of self-loathing, worthlessness, and at its very worst, feeling like life might not be worth living.

Gazette reporter Matt Smart.Gazette reporter Matt Smart.

With all that going on it's difficult to be a decent friend, boyfriend, or colleague, but I found myself doing just enough to try and cover it up. It took a lot of effort and was physically draining, which is why I spent a lot more time stuck to my sofa or sleeping.

It took a long time for me to go from catching myself thinking 'this really isn't healthy', to picking up a phone and calling the doctor. In that time I had taken in countless adverts on TV, in the podcasts I listen to, and even in the pages of the Gazette. Being a man between 16 and 30 years of age I'm right in the age group where suicide is the most common cause of death, but I was still trying as hard as I could to bury my head in the sand.

I looked back over my story with Karen, and she said: "Depression is like a secret - the more you keep it, the more it takes a hold of you and takes over your life."

She was absolutely spot on. Things got a lot easier once I took that step last autumn. I had some sessions with Devon Partnership Trust's Depression and Anxiety Service, where I was helped to recognise ways I could change my behaviour. In 2019 I've found exercise again after a lengthy hiatus, and it has done wonders for the self-esteem.

With advice from my doctor I reduced my work hours for a while so I could put those behaviour changes into practice and my colleagues encouraged and supported me through that, even though they had to pick up some of my slack.

I was also overwhelmed by the response from friends and family once I opened up, and with the latter I realised just how common these things can be. It shows just how important it is to open up and make yourself that little bit vulnerable for a short period of time, because it could change your life.

That's why I've written this piece - in the small hope that someone somewhere can relate to what I've said and have the confidence to talk to someone about it.

For me low mood felt like a constant cycle of wanting to be left alone and then feeling incredibly lonely. It's a lot easier to break that cycle once you open up, so let's talk about it.

Let's Talk About It - how to get help

There are a range of services available when it comes to getting help in addition to contacting your GP.

Devon Partnership Trust's Depression and Anxiety Service (Talkworks) offers free talking therapy and treatments, with a service based in North Devon. You can also self-refer online.

The Moorings at Barnstaple provides a walk-in service in Princess Street without a need for a GP referral. You can drop in from 6pm-midnight Thursday to Sunday, call or email.

Support is also available from Samaritans by calling 116 123