Published on 14th May 2019


We chat with writer and mental health campaigner Rachel Kelly about her struggles with clinical depression – and her journey to recovery. Kelly’s new workbook Singing in the Rain: 52 Practical Steps to Happiness is available to buy now. Twitter:


Was there a defining moment when you realised you may be suffering from depression? 

“Yes, my depression first happened suddenly when I was in my early thirties. It all began one May... seemingly out of the blue. I was taking our two small sons – a six-month-old baby and a toddler – upstairs for bath time. I laid them on their towels, kissing their tummies in our normal routine, when my heart started racing.  

“That night I was gripped by insomnia. I thought I was having a heart attack; my heart was beating so wildly. I paced the house all night, checking and re-checking the children. When I lay in bed unable to sleep, my worries went round and round, the anxiety worsening. I was worried about trying to work, trying to be a good mother, trying to be a good wife. I became increasingly overwhelmed and was bursting with an active sense of dread that disaster was about to strike. In three days, I went from being mildly anxious to being unable to move in an agonising foetal curl on the floor, suicidal with fear.  

“This proved to be the start of my first major depressive episode... I was briefly hospitalised, and was then ill for a further six months. I was treated with antidepressants and sleeping pills and eventually returned to work, hoping the problem would go away. My luck held, but then I had a second breakdown several years later. This one lasted for two years.” 

Did you always have hope that you would recover, and what gave you strength during the harder times? 

“At the height of the depressive episodes I lost all hope. I felt so unwell I was suicidal. I had horrible physical symptoms: a racing heart, a sense of dread, worries piling on worries. My fears solidified into agonising physical symptoms. All I could do was lie in bed and scream. I was screaming because of the pain. Every bit of me was in acute, dynamic, physical agony. It felt as if I was on a plane that was crashing, hurtling at high speed.  

“But little by little my symptoms began to ease, and pockets of hope returned. What gave me strength was poetry. When I was suicidal, I would hold on to my husband or mother to stop this terrifying sense of falling. My mother has a head filled with snippets of literature and inspiring quotations, as well as poetry. She would repeat lines of hope from poets like George Herbert who wrote: ‘Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart/ Could have recovered greenness.’ I would repeat them with her. I found it soothing and healing to imagine I too would recover. The poetry provided a different, more positive narrative in my head.  As I got better, we moved to verses, and then entire poems. Short, accessible consolatory poems proved most helpful.” 

What tools did you use to support your recovery?  

“Exercise, mindfulness, therapy and especially nutrition all played their parts in my recovery; ideas I wrote about in my books Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness published in 2015, and The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food, published in 2017.” 

Can you identify any positives from your experience and, if so, what did they teach you?  

“The first positive is that I've learnt a huge amount about how to stay calm and well. Though I wouldn't wish depression on anyone, it has been my teacher and guide. Now I look after my psychological health as much as I look after my physical health.  

“The second positive is that thanks to being unwell, I've met lots of fellow sufferers as well those inspirational people who have helped me recover, like the nutritional therapist Alice Mackintosh, my co-author on The Happy Kitchen

“I discovered that many thought and worried like I do. Because I am part of this community of people who struggle with anxiety and depression, I've been able to road-test the ideas in my books, like my first workbook for people who struggle with anxiety, Singing in the Rain, with subscribers from my mailing list and volunteers who have come to my workshops. The book reflects all these different conversations, meetings and practical steps that helped me and others most on the road to being calm and well. I feel very positive and confident about the book as a result: these steps really work! It is a wonderful positive to feel I can help others.” 

What was the thinking behind your new book Singing in the Rain 

While my earlier books have been more about the ideas I have found helpful, Singing in the Rain reflects more practical steps. It is a workbook full of things you can actually do for your wellbeing, be it writing a letter, drawing a picture, or making some origami. Thinking often makes me sad, but doing rarely does. 

“It's quite easy to give up hope and become passive when you are given a mental health diagnosis. I wanted people to believe they could make a difference, because they can. There’s an easily won satisfaction in being active and occupied.   

“So there are lots of invitations to cut, colour, and handle this book, and particularly to write stuff down. Picking up a pen might sound old-fashioned, but this is deliberate and has a basis in science. Research has found that writing about emotional experiences can boost our wellbeing, and can even make people’s wounds heal more quickly – you can find details of the studies I refer to throughout the text at the back of the book.  

“Writing is also an obvious way to have a tangible record of your thoughts and ideas. Memory, at least my own, is often unreliable, and the book may prove useful to see which aspects of your wellbeing you might be struggling with – and how they change. If you really do work through the book, you will be left with something solid which feels real, rather than something lost to the ether of the internet on your screen.  

“Finally, in a world that’s speeding up thanks to social media, email and 24-hour news, and one in which instant gratification is central to our culture, the requirement to write: Slows. Us. Down. I know I have had many more happy moments since I slackened my pace.”

In 2017 you published The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food. How does your current diet compare to your pre-diagnosis diet. What does good nutrition mean to you?   

“My pre-diagnosis diet was a fairly standard meat and two veg sort of diet. I also had a penchant for diet Coke, and ate a fairly limited number of foods: the same things again and again, like a roast chicken every Friday.  

“My current diet is much more plant-based, and much more varied. I eat real food, avoid anything processed, and prioritise healthy fats.  

“Numerous studies show that a diet marked by processed vegetable fats, sugar, preservatives and a host of other chemicals may be setting us up for the kind of chronic inflammation which some doctors think may be at the root of low mood, anxiety and depression rather than the ‘chemical imbalance’ theory which is increasingly being questioned.  

“So I've swept my kitchen clean, eliminating such processed foods, and focused on buying ‘real foods’ instead such as fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs, unprocessed carbohydrates, nuts and seeds and traditional natural fats in moderation rather than processed or manufactured fats.  

“I also increased the amount of probiotics and fermented foods I ate as I learnt about the links between staying calm and a healthy microbiome or gut flora. Creamy yoghurt so thick it stands up in the bowl suits me well. Women given yoghurt containing probiotics were found to have a calmer response to certain stimuli, according to a 2013 study reported in Gastroenterology.  

“Finally, if I want a treat, I go for dark chocolate. The magnesium it contains is nice and calming!”  

Do you have any advice for people who may be suffering with depression, or indeed any other mental health issue? 

“My advice is not to dismiss either drugs or CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), the main treatments available on the NHS. But I do increasingly feel there is a third element to my own current sense of calm and wellbeing, and that is a belief in my own agency.  

“A sense of self-empowerment is at times neglected in the mental health world. It is all too easy to become dependent on others, whether psychiatrist or therapist, especially once you have received a diagnosis of a mental health condition, which can feel like a life sentence from which you will never recover.  

“I know feeling passive and powerless to do anything about my condition was part of being depressed. The more I discovered my own ability to take action, the better I felt. This was particularly true when it comes to my diet.  

“This insight is the basis for my current approach to managing my own mental health. Every day I remind myself that I can make a difference. This begins as soon as I wake up. The first thing I do is to make my bed, the white duvet perfectly aligned and my pillows plumped – a small gesture to be sure, but one that reminds me that if I take control of small decisions in this way, I will feel my own power to affect larger decisions.  

“As my day progresses, I can take care about what I eat, be mindful of my stress levels, ditch my inner critic and dismiss my impostor-syndrome. I have to believe I can make a difference – because I can!  

“This perspective has also been shaped by my experience running wellbeing workshops for various mental health charities and in schools and universities. In them I share the kind of lifestyle changes that research has found can help those with anxiety and depression. In my experience, the people who believe in their own agency are those who will benefit the most. Yet often sufferers have been robbed of this sense of their own power after years of conventional treatment. 

Mental Health Awareness Week: 13-19th May 2019


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