TALKING ABOUT HOW you’re feeling starts an open and honest conversation about mental health, which is key to breaking down the stigma and shame that surrounds depression and other mental illnesses for many people in this country.
Beginning a journey to recovery, with or without mental health difficulties, is possible for everyone, and the first step in that process is often as simple as telling someone what’s going on.
We asked three Irish people to tell us why they decided to speak up about their own mental health. Here are their stories.
Margaret Sweeney, 53, Carlow
“Looking back, my difficulties began after the traumatic birth of my second son in 1992. It was an undiagnosed breech birth, and we both nearly died during the labour. Over the next few months I thought I was recovering and living my daily life as before, but in reality I wasn’t. I was depressed. My struggles reached a crescendo which led to a psychotic breakdown.
“For years I thought it was the world outside that was the problem. I had severe paranoia, delusions and thought disorders. Between 1997 and 2003 I was in and out of hospitals, court rooms, police stations and A&E departments. There was no sign of the confident, hard-working woman I once had been.
“One thing in particular that kicked off my recovery process was a psychiatrist I met who really began to listen to my story. He believed in me and saw the person I used to be. He gave me the belief that I could get better, that I was more than an illness. It was then that my journey of recovery really began.
“I got involved with a programme called Advancing Recovery Ireland through a forum at Carlow hospital, and since then have worked to co-found the Involvement Centre in Carlow as well as working as a recovery consultant with other mental health services. One thing I wanted to do when I was unwell was to meet someone who had been through the same journey as me, with the same diagnosis. Now I have met those people, I’ve seen them recover and I’ve seen them move on. I have a network of support now, and I’m helping others too. Speaking about recovery, even casually, helps massively with breaking down barriers.”
Mum-of-two Margaret was 33 when she was admitted to hospital after a psychotic breakdown, and spent the next six years in a “revolving door” of hospital admissions. Now, Margaret uses her own experience to help others through the HSE’s Advancing Recovery Ireland programme, which focuses on making mental health services all around Ireland more recovery-oriented.
Alan O’Mara, 26, Cavan
“I always trace the start of my first experience with depression back to May 1st, 2011, the day I played in the All-Ireland Under-21 final with Cavan and lost to Wexford. In hindsight, football had definitely been papering over some cracks for me, and over the next six months life as I knew it unravelled.
“At the time, I was the poster boy for everything you shouldn’t do if you’re experiencing mental health struggles. I kept it to myself, I lay in bed hoping it would go away, I drank. I was in totally unknown territory and didn’t know what was going on, nor did I have the emotional intelligence or self-awareness to know how to come through it.
“In the end I was very lucky that my mam just skipped through all of the BS and asked me very directly what was going on. I was at home in Cavan, on the couch with my hood up and my headphones in, when she came right out and said, ‘Are you feeling a bit depressed?’
“That question cut through everything for me. I didn’t have to rationalise it or make sense of it. I didn’t have to explain it. In that moment, all I had to do was say ‘yes’. That moment was the beginning of my recovery process. From there I decided to visit a counselling service. The conversation with my mam was the start of a process, and the counselling room was where a lot of the magic happened. I really learnt to appreciate the value of conversation, of talking and of connecting with the people you’re close to.
“I thought that admitting that I was vulnerable would weaken relationships with people close to me or even destroy them, but in hindsight the opposite is true. Speaking to people close to me infinitely strengthened those relationships.”
As goalkeeper for Cavan’s Under-21 team, Alan was a 2011 Ulster champion and played in the All-Ireland Under-21 final that same year. Alan is now a mental health advocate, an ambassador for the HSE’s Little Things campaign, host of the podcast Real Talks, and author of The Best Is Yet To Come.
Úna-Minh Kavanagh, 26, Kerry
“Since my first experience of depression during my final year at school in 2009, I’ve had a few spells here and there. Becoming unemployed in 2015 left my confidence slashed. I remember days upon days in my bed in the dark, curled into a ball, crying, telling myself I was worthless. Eventually I decided to become self-employed, something which has changed my life completely.
“In my darkest moments, I would put off opening up to my loved ones to see if I could cope myself rather than bother them. Though I know that they would never judge me, you don’t want to feel like it’s all about ‘me, me, me.’ In the end though, along with speaking to therapists and using support networks online and offline, the love of my mother, my best friends and my partner of six years is what has gotten me through. Their patience has been overwhelming.
“Talking openly about mental health is hugely important. Even if someone is struggling, they may not believe that their problems are severe enough to talk about, but that is simply not true. The key thing is to know that you’re not alone.”
Úna-Minh Kavanagh is a writer, blogger and an ambassador for the HSE’s Little Things campaign.
Depression can affect anyone, regardless of age, sex or social status. It is not a sign of weakness and any of us can experience low mood or depression at any stage in our lives. If you or someone you know is showing symptoms of depression, start a conversation.
For more information, check out YourMentalHealth.ie, from the HSE.