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Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Coping with Depression

This post will discuss my own experience of depression and what helped me to get through the tough time I was experiencing.  I decided to write this post on depression because writing has helped me in the past to release my thoughts and feelings about subjects that would normally eat me up inside and so I hope reading will also help in some way.

When the subject of depression and on this occasion suicide is discussed in the media, I find myself having very mixed emotions. Firstly I am sad for the individual and their families, looking back over your life and how they have touched your lives even though you did not know them personally. I have also found due to my own problems with depression it brings back memories of when I was at my lowest. On a bit more of a positive note I find myself being relieved that for a short period of time as individuals will feel more able to talk about their experiences. I also feel it helps to  raise awareness of what a debilitating illness depression can be and how sometimes people find that there is just no way out.

I find the memories that it brings back the hardest aspect to deal with, as I have learnt to cope with my depression but I know it is there and always will be. My mental health will always be fragile and I know that I will always have to work at keeping my mood stable, not allowing it to drop below a 'manageable' level which can be tiring and is when anyone with depression can be at their most vulnerable.

At my darkest hour I had suicidal thoughts, it is difficult to put down in words what this was like for me and unless you have been this low I don't think anyone can understand what it is like. Your ability to reason goes out the window and I can imagine those individuals who do take their own lives in the end have lost the final bit of reasoning that I was fortunate to have. This is only my opinion and my way of making sense of the process I went through because something stopped me from taking that final step, be it my ability to reason with myself or be it something else it is difficult to understand. When I was at this point in my life I could not see how anything could improve, the pain I was feeling and the pain that in my opinion people around me were going through because of how things were was enough for me to think it was time to end the suffering I was causing. One statement that gets thrown around is that those that do it were being selfish, I don't see it like this. People who get to this point are not thinking straight, thoughts are skewed and I felt I was being selfless as those around me were suffering because of how I was and I wanted to end it for them.

 When depression is part of  a persons life it can be difficult on everyone not just the person that is suffering directly. I am thankful for the support I received from those closest to me at the time. I have always found it difficult to accept help of the physical or emotional kind and so the support I was given was not always taken with open arms. I learnt to hide how I was feeling and did not feel able to talk to my husband or anyone else close to me for the concern that I would upset them and would be a burden. As a result of this it took a lot to swallow my pride and ask for help, after a lot of support already given by those closest to me.

Depression is something that I was unable to hide from everyone but I still feel unable to talk to many of my family about it as I feel there lack of understanding and misguided opinions on this matter would make it worse. Depression is still something many people will not talk about and have misconstrued ideas about what depression is and how it can be managed. At the beginning of this post I spoke about feeling relieved because it meant that people would feel more able to talk about this issue a bit more openly for a short period of time. Over the past few days I have noticed an increase in people feeling more able to talk about this issue. I continue to not feel able to talk to my family directly about the issues I face but perhaps maybe there are people out there whom feel more able now than they once did, preventing them from reaching the point that people like Robin Williams and many others before him have done.  

As mentioned above, my illness is more stable now and I feel more able to cope. Cope is the main point here, I have learnt coping strategies to deal with my depression and know if I don't do something that helps with this then I am opening myself up to experiencing lows like I have done before.

 Being able to look back on my own experiences has meant that I have learnt how to help others who may be struggling through life. Helping others can actually be more difficult at times because you feel helpless to know what to do. At this point I try to remind myself what they did for me and it can be as simple as just being in their lives as much as possible to show that they are not alone. If you know or suspect someone of having depression quite simply show that you are there, don't push them to talk or tell them to snap out of it. It can be as simple as sending a text showing you care.

 The support of those closest to me definitely helped me to feel less alone and more able to fight the illness. If you are the one going through it yourself, try and find someone to confide in, if you don't feel like this is possible there are other places to find support including the Samaritans and the charity Mind. When I was at my lowest one thing that helped was using a set of books by Matthew Johnstone titled ' I had a black dog' . http://matthewjohnstone.com.au/courses/i-had-a-black-dog/. These books were suggested by a friend and there are a number of them in the series looking at different parts of living with depression. I found they helped illustrate how I was feeling and they will still be used at times now to help explain what I am going through.

Depression is an evil illness which is more difficult to explain than a broken bone, it can not be seen but it doesn't make it any less real. There is evidence that it is a chemical imbalance in the brain and so has medical background rather than 'just being an emotion'. Some people will be more likely to suffer than others but the first step to ending the stigma is for everyone to learn more about the debilitating illness so that if you know someone that is suffering they can receive the help that they need rather than feeling that their only option is to suffer in silence. We need to keep talking about this issue to help those that feel they can't talk about it and to stop that feeling of being alone that so many people who suffer from depression will feel in their lives.

I hope this post is the start of people feeling able to talk about this subject more freely and so helping others to not suffer as I did in silence for so long.

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Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The truth behind First Capital Connect “Special Assistance”



The UK is one of the richest countries in the world; we live in a society where we have freedom of speech, where we are “free” to travel where we like when we like. Many people in 21st Century Britain commute on the train and nearly everyone at some point will have travelled by train. The ease, the simplicity of hopping on a train whilst it takes you to your destination when you hop off again enjoy your destination for as long as you like before deciding which train to take home. That is, of course, unless you are disabled when the situation is very different. 

This blog post will focus on First Capital Connect as that is who I use most frequently but it could easily apply to any other rail company as the situation is the same across the rail network. 

What they tell you about special assistance

They rail companies (in this instance First Capital Connect) tell you to ring their special assistance booking line 24 hours in advance and you will be guaranteed special assistance on your journey . The proviso is that you “make yourself known to a member of staff at the station when you arrive”.  The special assistance booking line will take your name, phone number and details of how you intend to arrive at your destination station and leave at your arrival station. They tell you that if you book special assistance you are guaranteed special assistance.

In an ideal world what should happen

You arrive at the train station and as you approach the barrier someone says “oh hello, you must be *Insert name* and you’re off to *insert destination*, your train is going from platform x do you need a hand getting over or can you manage to this yourself” *Insert reply* “Ok, I’ll meet you over there and I’ll have the ramp ready for you”. The member of staff will stay with you until your train arrives and ensure that you are waiting in the correct place on the platform to line up with the wheelchair space on the train. When the train arrives the member of staff will ensure that the designated space is free from obstruction, luggage and/or ignorant passengers, put the ramp down for and help you on. They will then say “don’t worry about the other end *Insert station* know you are coming and they were will be someone to help you off.” On the train if it is a Class 377 train (the more modern trains) the disabled call button will be opened up so if there is an emergency the passenger can contact the driver.

The reality is very different.

The Special assistance phone line:
I have been genuinely shocked by this service in the past especially what they can’t tell you. All this service does is put your details onto a central system so that “control” know you are travelling and a record is kept for statistical purposes. They do not tell individual stations any of your details, stations are just told that there is a disabled passenger coming on that day and this is rarely filtered down to platform staff. They cannot tell you whether the lifts are working at a particular station, they cannot tell you what platform a certain train is likely to be travelling from, and they also cannot tell you what classification of train it is i.e. whether or not the train will have a disabled toilet. These are all details disabled people may need to know before travelling on a train. In the past I have asked them to ring a particular station to ensure they know of an arrival but they cannot contact platform staff only the ticket office.  

On arrival at the station:
I have found out on various journeys (and by talking to staff members) that stations are not informed that a disabled person is coming and travelling through their station. You have to “make yourself known to a staff member” because once you get to the station you then have to request special assistance.  Platform staff also has no idea where you are going, so you have to tell them and they will then ring your destination so they know you are coming (they won’t have been told either).  A lot of staff don’t take the time to put passengers in the correct space on the train, especially with the 319 class (older trains) as it is not immediately obvious where the space is so they either put you behind the driver or in the nearest space to where they are standing. I will say not all staff members do this; there are some who genuinely take the time to do it properly. First Capital Connect say that platform staff are trained in how to board disabled passengers, going by many experiences, this is either not true or the training isn’t very good.  Platform staff then rings your destination station to let them know you are on the train, and again this doesn’t always happen. 

On the train:
Class 377 trains (the newer ones) are far better for disabled people as they have a proper area and a disabled toilet but sadly they are prioritised for commuters and rarely used off peak and at weekends. The picture below is of a covered emergency call button, platform staff are supposed to unlock this so it forms a table and an emergency call button. I have spoken with several disabled people about this and most didn’t even know what it was, First Capital Connect will tell you that it is opened for disabled people, it isn’t and I have never seen that happen. 




 On the older trains (class 319) there is a smaller space with folding bench seats, this area does not always have signs to indicate that this is an area for disabled people. Disabled passengers are often put “behind the driver” (even if this is not the suitable location) for safety, I have queried this and been told that in an emergency a member of staff needs to help the disabled passenger hence being behind the driver. When you raise the question of the disabled area being in the middle of the train in newer 377 trains, they mention the call button (see above). 


Getting off the train 

The idea of “special assistance” is that once you have been boarded onto a train there should be someone to meet you at the other end, anyone who is disabled and has travelled by train will tell you that this is a lottery. There is not always someone to meet you at the other end, social media is awash with stories of disabled passengers having to crawl off trains with their wheelchair, or being found by cleaners as they have just been left on a train. Personally if I have to travel on my own I choose a train that  has its final destination as my destination so I won’t end up at another station, if I can’t travel on such a train I ensure I am travelling with someone else who is able bodied.


Why book special assistance?

First Capital Connect say to guarantee special assistance you have to book. I have to admit I don’t always book 24 hours in advance, this is because I don’t always know what time I will be returning. If I am going out for a day trip somewhere or a meal out in an evening, it is impossible to predict how much fun I will have (or not) and I may want to stay later or come back earlier (as anyone would). As I have already said, booking special assistance doesn’t actually “book” anything it just creates a record, and it makes no difference to your journey, in the evenings many stations only have one platform assistant working even at stations that serve international airports (Luton Airport Parkway) and booking special assistance does not increase staffing levels. So why book Special Assistance? So you have grounds to complain, it is in fact a pointless service. 

Why blog about this? 

I am sick of it happening to me and to other disabled people, when you complain to First Capital Connect nothing happens. In the past I have complained to my MP, in reply I received a letter of apology from First Capital Connect and was given free travel on the journey of my choice.  I don’t want free travel, I don’t want an apology, what I want (and what every disabled passenger wants) is for the system to work properly and the changes to be made so it does work properly. When I tweet First Capital Connect they refer me back to the Special Assistance helpline which, as already discussed, is useless. Some people may see this as an opportunity to attack the rail unions, to be clear on this issue I know for a fact that the RMT campaigns on increased access across the railways and would like an end to Driver Only Franchises (of which First Capital Connect is one) so there is a member of staff on board every train to help.  I have spoken to many staff (usually the ones wearing an RMT pin badge) and they blame the system, many of the staff are hardworking, considerate and would agree with me about the system not working. Without them talking to me I would not have the information I need for this blog. It is time we opened up access to the railways so disabled people can travel as easily as able bodied people. 

I would welcome the opportunity to discuss this with First Capital Connect the issues raised but this has never been offered and in fact I am told that I am wrong and politely sent on my way.