Adam Schwartz was just 10 years old when depression took hold of him for the first time. He can remember describing the feeling to his mother, saying his heart was ‘black’ and his body ‘full of anger’.
His parents sought help from child psychologists, who focused on getting Adam back to school. But Adam’s underlying distress remained, manifesting in his early high school years via further school refusal, falling grades, weight gain, physical illness and angry outbursts. It was evident in more subtle ways, too: later Adam would realise he used darker colours in his artwork when his mood was about to crash, and old photos show a smile that wasn’t quite right.
Relief came at age 15 when a psychiatrist diagnosed Adam with depression “caused purely as result of a chemical imbalance”.
“It was a huge weight off my shoulders. For so long I had felt like my depression was a choice,” Adam explains.
Treatments involving medications and talking therapies followed, but none were successful. After two years of living with unrelenting suicide ideation, Adam and his family decided to try Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT).
“It was done with due diligence,” Adam says. “I’d had two years of no response to medication, I was referred by my psychiatrist to an ECT specialist, and then once approved, the opinion of an independent specialist was needed before treatment began. All the dangers were explained to me including the memory loss, and we did our research as a family.”
Adam was admitted to hospital for two months for ECT and describes his time there as positive.
“I no longer felt alone. There were other people there like me and we would talk about anything other than diagnoses and medication. The scariest part of my experience wasn’t the ECT, it was feeling suicidal. I was very lucky because the ECT worked, to the point where I haven’t needed medications or more ECT.”
Adam is emphatic that while he feels ECT saved his life, it doesn’t maintain it. Now 26 years old, he attributes his wellbeing to good sleep, healthy food and exercise, self-awareness of what improves and lowers his mood, and professional support.
He has had to manage the ramifications of the short term memory loss caused by the ECT, which lasted three months and meant he was unable to finish high school. It saw Adam take an alternative pathway to university, entering as a mature age student and graduating in 2017 with a Bachelor of Arts majoring in philosophy.
Now many years into his recovery and with a passion for mental health advocacy, Adam has published his story in a book and gives presentations to schools and professionals, including to training psychiatrists. His goal is to give people - especially young men - a story of hope.
When asked what would have helped him as a 10 year old to feel better and avoid his years of depression, Adam concedes it’s hard to know. But he does emphasise that no child would choose to go through what he did.
“I think parents should know what you see from your child is probably just a small part of what they’re feeling. They’re hiding a lot of it, trying to protect you.
“But parents should also know their strength and love and simply being there for their child is doing more for their kids than they can express. I know parents can feel as alone as the sufferers. You need to reach out to your support networks. More than anything, persevere.”