Happy new year, readers! It’s that time again, when the tinsel and Christmas jumpers have vanished from the shops, to be replaced by a range of items designed to make you hate your body. Lycra, dumbbells, kettlebells, diet pills, skinny tea, diet books and magazines, protein powders. To turn on the TV or open Facebook is to be bombarded by images of skinny, muscled humans advertising weight loss programmes. Just like the relentless fake-happy-clappy magic-of-Christmas advertising onslaught since October, there is no escape. And this writer is having none of it.
Category Archives: Mental Health
Twitter, it’s time
Dear Anne-Marie, you have been on Twitter for
6 years, 8 months, 7 days
(since 30 May 2011)
So says “Twiage”, an app which tells you just how long its been since the last day you didn’t take part in an argument online.
I jest, but …
That duration is inaccurate in my case. I’ve actually been a Twitter user since early 2008, where it seemed like the next logical step after discussion forums. So that’s ten years in total a twitter user, with a brief hiatus in 2011. That’s a story for another post; but my second inception has felt like a lifetime in itself.
And today is my last day.
Don’t forget to smell the roses
May, for me is an odd month. Traditionally the time of year when the flowers appear, the languid summer evenings kick in and the sense of rebirth is strong; in all of the loveliness, there is a bittersweet pang. It’s a month of anniversaries, laced with memories of loved ones lost. The sense of time passing, like water flowing, punctuated only by the numbers on the calendar, flicking by faster each year. This year, there are some significant anniversaries. Like a birthday or a wedding date remembered, only a different type of milestone. Though none less significant.
2017 – A Pace Odyssey
Greetings, readers of this blog. Real life has been so, so busy of late that blogging has really taken a back seat.
Funnily, when I moved back to the west, I somehow imagined that life would be much less busy; that I would have more downtime. I even harboured quaint notions of writing a book. However, that’s looking more like a pipe dream at present, and in fact the opposite has proven to be the case. Continue reading
ASIST Training – the aftermath
A couple of months ago I wrote about my decision to enrol for the ASIST training workshop. Devised by Living Works to enable people to deliver “suicide first aid”, the course is delivered in Ireland by the HSE (National Office for Suicide Prevention), co-ordinated by the HSE Regional Resource Officers for Suicide Prevention and most importantly, it’s available free of charge to everyone, though places are limited.
At the time, suicide was in the news (even more than usual), and it got me to thinking; if the State is going to continue to fail people who are in immediate danger of suicide – and there is no disputing that it is – then the rest of us had better damn well start equipping ourselves to deal with it, and fast.
My reasoning? Once upon a time, I told someone I was close to that I felt so low that I didn’t want to be alive any more. I can still see the look of panic in her eyes, but despite her best intentions I felt even more hopeless and alone after the conversation ended. Late that night I put on my coat, sneaked out and sat numbly for a long time in the cold by the river, weighing up the pros and the cons of being alive. I decided that the pros were few and far between and the world would probably be a better place for everyone else without me in it. But for some reason or another, I decided to go home and sleep on it. The next day brought a different conversation with someone else, with a far more positive outcome. However, many others have left their homes in a similar state of mind and never returned.
Fast forward a decade and a half, to a time when we have realised that far more people than we realise have experienced depression, mental distress or have felt suicidal. There is far less shame in talking about it now, but many of us just don’t know how. We’re afraid of putting someone under pressure, of burdening someone else with our problems, or if we’re asked for help, we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, or not knowing where to get professional help.
Thinking about my well-meaning friend, and putting myself in her shoes, I realised that even having felt suicidal myself in the past, all these years later if I were placed in a situation where someone told me they were suicidal, I still wouldn’t have a clue how to deal with it. Neither would I know where to look for help if faced with an emergency. Over the two days spent attending ASIST, I learned something very valuable. The help is within each of us.
Though the HSE offers a number of workshops around the topic of suicide prevention (and I’m sure others do too), covering general awareness of and alertness to the signs of suicide, ASIST is an intervention workshop, which means that it’s designed to equip you to intervene in a situation where there is a strong and immediate risk of suicide and ensure that the person at risk is kept “safe for now”, while putting in place supports to help them through this crisis period. The workshop also trains participants to seek a shared understanding of reasons for suicide and reasons for living. For some, this can be as dramatic as “talking someone down” from a dangerous position; for others, it can be interrupting the planning process or planting uncertainty about the decision and helping them to focus on reasons for living.
So, having completed the two days’ training, what’s the verdict?
Well, first and foremost, it does what it says it will. I can confidently say I would feel far better equipped to intervene in such a situation now than I would have this time last week. Basically what the training does is:
- attempt to explore – and subsequently remove – your own biases and attitudes towards suicide, so that they don’t influence the intervention.
- It gives you a clear “pathway” or model to have that conversation with someone, bearing in mind that such conversations can be long, circular and challenging.
- It does not focus on long-term problem solving; merely a “safe for now” approach,
- and at all times, it acknowledges the need to protect the wellbeing of the person who is intervening.
The course is two full days, though they are shorter than average with lots of breaks and plenty of tea and coffee. We had two trainers and broke into two smaller groups of about 12 people. The sessions are mostly interactive – and while many people (myself included) shy away from group work and role play in sessions like these, it’s absolutely essential to contribute, or at least to witness, if you’re to feel confident working with the model. And you will. And it’s not all doom and gloom – there are plenty of laughs too!
One incredibly important thing I felt ASIST did was was to acknowledge that not everyone who dies by suicide has experienced mental health issues. This is a point I feel is frequently lost. It also acknowledged the effect of alcohol on our mood and decision-making. And it also acknowledged that as a caregiver, even if you intervene to keep someone “safe for now”, you may not be in a position to provide further care, and that is fine – you can seek assistance or hand over responsibility if you need, once you have intervened.
Given my own experiences I was apprehensive about attending, and make no mistake about it, the two days are tiring and emotionally draining. If you’ve recently lost someone to suicide, or felt suicidal in the past, or are feeling unwell in the present, it might not be the best environment for you. So bear that in mind, but on the other hand, learning to work your way through the model and equipping yourself with this knowledge and confidence is empowering too.
I won’t go into much more detail here, apart from to say that I would highly recommend attending this training. It’s available widely – and for free – through the HSE National Office for Suicide Prevention along with a lot of other related courses – check them out here. You’ll need to contact your local Regional Resource Officer for Suicide Prevention to get the latest local info. And please feel free to drop me a line or comment below with any questions and I’ll do my best to answer.
For those based near me in Mayo, the next ASIST training takes place in the Ballina on Tuesday 31st May and Wednesday 1st June – contact Mary for more information.
Suicide first-aid – a useful life skill? HSE ASIST training …
Following my last post over on Facebook, I’ve just registered with the HSE to complete their ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) course. Though not highly publicised, it’s a free, two-day interactive workshop in suicide first-aid which trains participants to reduce the immediate risk of suicide and increases the support for a person at risk.
The issue of our high suicide rates is always simmering away in the background, but it feels like recently, frustration with our mental health services, and increasingly, the difficulty in accessing treatment is starting to reach boiling point, as more and more people tell their story. There was the horrific death of Caoilte O’Broin, whose family had so desperately tried to get him the help he needed, only to meet frustration and closed doors at every turn, the tragic death of Stephen Byrne, and of course the dreadful loss a while back of Sharon Grace and her little girls, not to mention the loss of Una Butler‘s family. And of course Bressie’s impassioned appeal to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children to address the “epidemic of our generation”. I could go on; these are just a handful of examples.
Dealing with service issues can be fraught, frustrating and there are many problems to be navigated, not least the question of the involvement of families in mental health treatment, and the terrifying barriers to treatment that exists when a person, such as Caoilte, has a dual diagnosis.
I therefore feel, that for as long as we live in a country where equity of access to well-resourced, timely, affordable, holistic, compassionate, recovery-led mental health treatments is at present, a distant aspiration, we need to start equipping ourselves to better deal with the reality around us. That reality is that approximately 500 people annually in this country lose their lives to suicide. While our government has an obligation to step up to the plate, I can’t – won’t – accept that there is nothing we ourselves can do as a society to try and change this.
Prevention strategies have their place when it comes to addressing suicide; however, we can all sit at any point on the mental health spectrum at any time, and sometimes, it’s emergency intervention that’s needed. While we have become very, very good at telling people in distress that they should “seek help” or “talk to someone”, if someone did exactly that and told you they were considering killing themselves, would you know what to do? Would you feel confident you could help?
I know I wouldn’t.
According to the HSE, the ASIST workshop encourages honest, open and direct talk about suicide as part of preparing people to provide suicide first aid, and helps participants understand what help and support people in crisis might need. But it aims to instil a confidence in dealing with crisis situations that may just save a life. ASIST workshop places are limited, they say, therefore preference must be given to participants who are likely to come into contact with someone who is at risk of suicide in their daily lives. Given our current suicide rates, that could be any of us.
- Training dates: Regular trainings are scheduled around the country – you can find more information on these by contacting your Regional Resource Officer for Suicide Prevention at the following link. http://www.hse.ie/…/resour…/officers_suicide_prevention.html
- Cost: ASIST training is free. You just need to register in advance.
- Who can take part? Anyone can partake in ASIST training, but it is particularly suitable for all kinds of caregivers – health workers, teachers, community workers, Gardai, youth workers, volunteers, people responding to family, friends and co-workers. he course can be intense, and it’s not recommended for people who may have lost someone to suicide or have been recently bereaved.
Other mental health training resourses from the HSE National Office for Suicide Prevention
Media still too quick and willing to stigmatise depression
This column was published in The Mayo News on Tuesday 31st March 2015.
It was difficult last week to miss coverage of the Germanwings plane crash that claimed 150 lives in the French Alps. A catastrophe of unimaginable proportions, it embodied every private fear we’ve all tried to bury when getting on a plane. The horror experienced by the 150 passengers on board as it dawned on them what was about to happen is the stuff of our worst nightmares, and the proximity of the tragedy undoubtedly cast a chill over us all.
Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz is now, sadly, a household name. Remarkable by his ordinariness, his Facebook page depicted him as a smiling, leather jacket-clad sportsman interested in travel, music, and clubs. Apparently popular, he appeared well-known and respected in his community. By all accounts, a perfectly normal young man who happened to fly planes for a living.
So what made Lubitz decide to commit, apparently out of the blue, such an abhorrent act of violence in such a calm and calculated manner?
The simple answer is that we don’t know. No-one could, at this point, claim to know with certainty. But at the time of writing, on Friday morning, the majority of the tabloid newspapers claimed to have the answer.
It was depression, they screamed. It emerged that Andreas Lubitz is said to have sought psychiatric help for “a bout of heavy depression” six years ago, which necessitated a break from his flight training. After he was cleared to resume he passed all subsequent tests – including psychological tests – with flying colours, and was subject to regular medical checks.
These last details appear to have been overlooked by many of the tabloids, who, high on outrage, published screaming headlines such as: “German who deliberately crashed Airbus had a long history of depression – so why was he let anywhere near a plane?”, “Why on earth was he allowed to fly?”, ”Depressed pilot crashed jet” and charmingly, “Cockpit maniac”.
While the families of the deceased should be prioritised and respected in the analysis of this disaster, responsible media reporting should not be overlooked, and the messages emanating from those headlines demonstrate that while we might think we have progressed when it comes to normalising mental health, ultimately, the willingness to stigmatise those with problems is never far away.
If depression is being touted as the primary reason for Lubitz’s actions, it any wonder there is still a reluctance to talk about mental health? In particular, is it any wonder that there is a particular reluctance to disclose mental health problems in the workplace? Nearly 6 in 10 people believe that being open about a mental health problem at work would negatively affect their career prospects. Reading headlines like this, is it any wonder?
Discourse like this perpetuates the damaging myth that those with mental illness are more likely to be violent. Should no-one who has suffered depression in their lifetime be permitted to hold positions with responsibility for the safety of other people? If that were the case, we’d have a lot of people sitting at home. As someone who has, should I be forbidden to get behind the wheel of a car, lest I get a murderous urge to plough it into someone? While everyone’s experience is different, many will understand that when depression strikes, it’s often about as much as you can do to get out of bed in the morning, let alone murder 150 people.
We can speculate endlessly on what drove Lubitz to do what he did. Mental health issues may have been a contributory factor, but it is impossible to attribute them as a cause. Too frequently, when a violent act is committed, the tendency is to point to mental ill-health as the primary reason. And when the media presents it in such a way, it’s not just hurtful to those of us who have experienced problems, it’s damaging and it’s irresponsible. It’s also downright lazy.
At the time of writing, investigators claimed they had found a ‘clue’ in Lubitz’s home that might shed some light on why he did what he did. For the families and friends of the deceased, we can only hope that such answers are forthcoming. But they will be cold comfort.
Connected – but are we connecting?
As published in the European Newspaper of the Year, The Mayo News on Tuesday 11th November 2014 🙂
In recent weeks, Fr. Brendan Hoban, a prominent member of the Association of Catholic Priests, appealed to Irish Bishops to ignore a Vatican directive instructing priests to remain at the altar during the Sign of Peace ritual during Mass. Because of its position in the ceremony, right before Communion, it is suggested that the hustle and bustle of the handshake disrupts the spiritual preparation of those preparing to receive the Sacrament, and one assumes, those administering it. However, the directive, according to Fr. Hoban, could do “untold damage” to the church, by destroying a custom that is part and parcel of pastoral care. If implemented, it would mean that priests should desist from offering the sign of peace to newlywed couples and their loved ones and to grieving families during funeral ceremonies. We are told that the Church and the church community are one and the same, but this unfortunate directive would essentially serve to create another barrier between the clergy and the community. And that’s a shame – for both.
Plenty could be written about the coldness, the heavy-handedness of the Vatican, and the chasm that exists between its reality and the lived reality of the lives of ordinary church members (and many of the clergy, human beings themselves), but – you can breathe a sigh of relief – I’ll save that for another day. Rather, what struck me about the directive was the way it aims to create distance and establish barriers where really, the need to demolish them appears far more prudent and necessary.
Once upon another lifetime, an old friend elbowed me and whispered during the Sign of Peace at a wedding. “Look around you”, he said. “Everyone in the place is smiling.” Now, it should be said that the same fella had a tendency to prank you during the Sign of Peace by holding onto your hand like a vice grips and not releasing it until either it turned blue or you made an undignified show of yourself trying to shake him off, whichever happened first, but unnerving habits aside, he had a point. Just reaching out, looking someone else in the eye and shaking their hand had lifted the room and filled it with a new light. The simple act of connecting, wishing someone else well. Surely that’s something that should be encouraged, not dissuaded?
It’s a thought that’s stayed with me down the years, and particularly so as we evolve into more technology-dependent beings. We’re privileged enough to have multiple means of connecting and communicating, yet sometimes it feels like we’re retreating further and further from each other. Where once we might have written a note, picked up the phone or knocked on the neighbour’s door, we now communicate using SMS, email, Facebook. Instead of looking someone in the eye, we stare at a screen. Sure, technology makes the world so much smaller, it’s a godsend for those with loved ones far away, and it facilitates business interactions in a manner light years away from fax machines and hand-delivered memos. The likes of Twitter also enables us to connect with people that would have been previously out of reach – people that might previously have only featured on CD covers, posters on our walls and our dreams – but how meaningful are those connections?
It’s hard not to wonder if we’re becoming more reclusive – and dare I say, lazy – when it comes to those in closer proximity. When I was growing up, in true country childhood style, no-one called ahead to ask if they could visit. The very idea was scoffed at; they just turned up on the doorstep, often in substantial numbers. It was the norm, and it was actually quite nice, unless the host had no biscuits in the house. Now, we make appointments for face-to-face contact and book ourselves in like we would to the dentist’s chair. Running through my neighbourhood in Dublin recently, I couldn’t help but notice the proliferation of iron security gates outside houses. A safeguard, or a barrier? To me, I must admit, they say one thing loud and clear – “Keep your distance”. The traditional Irish welcome now comes with a raft of terms and conditions, if you ever get to cross the threshold of your neighbour’s home. Indeed, how many of us living in suburbia can claim to even know their neighbours? It’s not just in the home, though, it’s at work too – those of us working in open-plan offices will be no stranger to communicating via email with the person sitting next to us – to my embarrassment I’m frequently guilty of this crime against civility and common sense.
I can’t help wondering how this trend will continue into the future and to what extent communication technologies will develop, but one thing’s for certain. No matter how technologically advanced we become, no matter how independent, no matter how futuristic our communication tools, none of them will ever trump the power of a smile, a hug, a handshake at Mass or elsewhere, or a simple chat over a cup of tea. And biscuits only make it better.
A little note on #littlethings
Today sees the launch of the HSE’s new mental health promotion campaign, Little Things. The campaign is a new, positive wellbeing campaign, designed not quite as a suicide prevention measure, but rather, in order to help us to help ourselves and others through the normal, everyday dips in mood that most of us experience at some point in our lives. It’s about educating, empowering and equipping us to deal with tough times, and just as importantly, reminding us to reach out to others, who may be going through their own difficulties. Ultimately, the aim is early intervention, protection and prevention – stopping normal ‘dips’ from becoming more serious or long-term problems.
Disclaimer from the outset – I was involved in certain elements of the development of this campaign on a professional level. I found it a compelling and educational process, and speaking to members of the public about the new messaging and about mental health in general demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that people really want to make their own difference when it comes to mental health issues in Ireland, but that they’re not always comfortable with doing so. Males in particular freely admit that this is an area they sometimes struggle with, and would like to see conversation around it becoming more normal and acceptable – and less of a big deal.
What was really striking was just how difficult the terms “mental wellbeing” or “emotional wellbeing” were to grasp. Any discussion of mental health invariably reverts to the traditional mental ILL-health narrative, and the concept of looking after your mind, as you would your body, and taking a preventative approach as you would with your physical health, is still alien to many. As a matter of urgency therefore, we need to change that, start educating ourselves and being more proactive in this regard.
Secondly, and this is evident from looking at the #littlethings stream on twitter last night, particularly after Enda Kenny broke a twitter hiatus of almost four years to lend his support to the campaign, there is real anger out there. Fury that the government can be seen to get behind this campaign, yet fail the country so utterly when it comes to the provision of services to those in difficulty who urgently need them. The government, in this year’s “giveaway” budget had a golden opportunity to reinstate the €15million in funding that they whipped away from the “ringfenced” budget last year, yet chose not to do so. €15million is a relatively small sum in the grand scheme of things, especially when you bear in mind that €68m was allocated to the Horse and Greyhound fund (wait for it) “in recognition of the significant shortfall in funding going into the horse and greyhound sectors in recent years as a result of the downturn in the economy”. Public anger is therefore completely and utterly justified, and not for a second should this campaign be deemed a solution to the problems of severe mental ill-health and high suicide rates.
However, that is not to say there isn’t a place for a campaign like this – in fact, quite the opposite. Fixing our problems with mental ill-health in Ireland shouldn’t just consist of implementing suicide prevention measures. Rather, we should be speaking to people who sit on all points of the mental health spectrum – i.e., every one of us, at any given time. As Alan says in one of the TV ads (below) “Thoughts can become feelings if you let them” – a line that succinctly sums up how mental health issues can develop over time, and a decline in mental health can be gradual. You don’t normally just wake up one morning in severe difficulty – it typically happens over time. This campaign is therefore designed to interrupt, to educate, to empower, and to make us aware that there are things we can do for ourselves and others – things that are scientifically proven to have a positive effect – at an earlier stage that can turn the tide before we reach crisis point.
And critically, it should serve as a reminder that every single one of us has a role to play by reaching out to others who may be experiencing their own tough times. And even if they’re not, a little kindness can make an immeasurable difference to someone else’s wellbeing without you ever knowing. Take it from someone who knows.
The campaign is launching today, so you’ll probably see it on your screens at some point this week. On social media, follow @littlethingshub, like yourmentalhealth.ie on Facebook, and feel free to share the little things that help you to mind your mind – they may well help others. Check out the newly designed website yourmentalhealth.ie – a “one stop shop” for information on mental health, wellbeing, and also, importantly a directory of support services of all types available throughout the country.
We all need to help each other to prevent suicide
Wednesday 10th September was World Suicide Prevention Day. There are now lots of days and weeks designated for mental health awareness, so much so that it’s starting to become a bit confusing, but I reckon there’s probably never a bad time to be reminded to mind your mind. Next Friday October 10th is World Mental Health Day. With these two dates in mind, I wrote this column for the Mayo News on Tuesday 16th September.
Last Wednesday was World Suicide Prevention Day, a global day designated for raising awareness of suicide and suicide prevention. Traditionally shrouded in silence and shame, the stigma with which suicide was traditionally regarded in Ireland is being slowly cast aside. But as welcome as that is, it makes the consequences no less devastating, and indeed it is an occurrence with which many of us are all too painfully familiar. Recent statistics from the World Health Organisation suggest that at a global level, someone dies by suicide every 40 seconds. Ireland has the fourth highest suicide rate in Europe, and 475 people died this way last year. Over one a day. That’s a lot of grieving families, partners and friends.
Suicide is complex, as are the reasons behind it. There is, however an established link between suicide and mental ill-health, and we are finally starting to talk about it. The conversation has developed significantly in recent years, and we are slowly but surely moving towards a point where it is just as normal and acceptable to talk about your mental health (or ill-health – there is an important distinction) as it is your physical wellbeing. However, it truly is a case of a lot done, a lot more to do.
Crucially, the question people are starting to ask is “What can we do?” This is a welcome development, given the countless campaigns to raise awareness of suicide and depression. At this point, I think it’s fair to say we’re all well aware of the problem. Now what we need are solutions, and the truth is, every single one of us can make a difference. To put it bluntly, it’s high time we all looked in the mirror, and stepped up and took some responsibility for suicide prevention.
It’s all very well advising people struggling with their mental wellbeing to “reach out”, “get help” and “talk to someone”. That’s the overriding message, and yes, it’s good advice – more often than not, it will help. But as someone who has suffered in the past with mental ill-health, the fundamental problem with telling people who are struggling to “get help” is that it places all the onus on someone who is unwell to take that first step. What if, for a change, those who are well started doing some of the reaching out? When you’re in that dark place, when you’re so unwell that you’re starting to believe that not being alive at all would be preferable to living with unrelenting darkness, it’s common to withdraw and isolate yourself. “Just talking” to someone can seem like a mammoth task. When I experienced my first bout of depression over fourteen years ago, I didn’t leave my house for nearly two weeks. I needed someone to reach out to me, and I was one of the lucky ones – somebody did. I will forever be grateful to that person, because I owe them my life.
If we are serious about tackling suicide, we all need step up to the plate, and start being kinder to each other. We need to be cognisant of the fact that 1 in 4 of the people around us will be suffering from a mental health issue (mild or major) at any one time. Every single one of us at some point will experience emotional difficulties. We don’t know what others are dealing with in their day-to-day lives, and there may not be any signs. But there are lots of little things we can all do. A phone call, an email to someone you haven’t spoken to in a while; even a kind word to a stranger can make the world of difference. When you ask someone how they are, listen to their reply. Remind your loved ones that you love them.
If someone comes to you for help, it can be daunting, but don’t panic – you don’t need to be a professional to help; neither do you need to solve the problem. Just listen. For as little or as long as it takes. Hang in there; don’t give up on them. Believe me when I say that simply being there can be enough. [Update: If you do wish to equip yourself, the HSE ASIST course is an excellent free resource – read my account of it here.]
Let’s look in the mirror and take some responsibility here. Let’s as a community educate ourselves and be more thoughtful, supportive and kinder to each other. And let’s end this scourge on our society for once and for all.
Thought for the day
Yesterday, 1st July 2014 saw an incident occur in Dublin city centre.
An incident that, in the way it played out, spoke volumes about our relationship with mental health in Ireland. Faced with the reality of a potential emergency, the Irish public and media reacted in a way that painted a stark, grim and dare I say it, depressing picture of our real attitudes towards those who behave in a way that suggests mental distress.
At approximately 10.30pm yesterday morning, a shirtless man was spotted on the roof of the Abercrombie and Fitch building on College Green, where he was seen climbing back and forth between the “peak” of the building, to the roof just behind it. He then moved to the adjacent, taller Ulster Bank building where he continued to move around the roof, and for a time balanced precariously on top of a statue on top of one of the buildings. Gardai were called to the scene, where they talked to the man for a number of hours (while the crowd looked on) and eventually, to their credit (and I’m sure, great relief) saw that he alighted safely from the roof.
I wasn’t there. But I know this, because within minutes of the man being spotted, a crowd of hundreds of people gathered on College Green. They stood, and they watched. I know, because they started posting photos on social media. I know, because a number of national news outlets and “entertainment sites” – too many to name, in fact – under the guise of reporting ensuing traffic disruptions, decided to post photos of the man on their webpages. Photos that in some cases, would arguable render the man identifiable, particularly to friends or family. Some even went as far as posting video.
Because it’s “news”. Because we “live in a digital age”. Because news is now “real time reporting”.
Conveniently, every news outlet that went ahead, published images of this man and told the nation what was happening on Dame Street chose to ignore the Samaritans’ responsible reporting guidelines. Guidelines, which were issued because, according to the Chairman of the Press Council of Ireland:
“The media … has a heavy responsibility in the manner in which it reports incidents of suicide and self-harm. I know that they are anxious to meet that responsibility.”
That must be why they ignored the following advice, then, from page 9 of the guidelines:
“Avoid dramatic or emotional images and footage, such as a person standing on a ledge.Try not to illustrate a report with specific locations, such as a bridge or cliff, especially if this is a place where people frequently take their own lives.”
and did exactly the opposite.
It’s not like the media just forgot, or that they weren’t aware of the guidelines. Within seconds of posting the images, amidst the ensuing comments, callous jokes and bitter dismissals of a man “wasting taxpayers’ money”, numerous members of the public objected to the images, and posted links to the page on the Samaritans’ website. All objections were ignored. Apart from Broadsheet.ie, who, to their credit, removed the image. TheJournal.ie closed the comments on their article – the same article that included a number of photos and videos.
Those guidelines are there for a reason. They’re there to protect other people, and in particular, people who may be at risk of suicide or self-harm themselves. So basically, some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
(Incidentally, other guidelines on that list advise not providing detail on how a person died by suicide, and not reading out the contents of a suicide note. But of course, certain factions of the media have form in ignoring them.)
Of course, it can be argued that this wasn’t a suicide, so these guidelines didn’t apply. That none of us knew why the man was on the roof.
Sure, we didn’t. We didn’t even know whether it was related to a mental health issue. True.
Was it any of our business? No.
But did we know for sure that we weren’t looking at a man in serious distress? No.
Was there a concern for his safety? Yes.
Clearly, in the eyes of the Irish media, that concern for a man’s safety was superseded by the need to get the scoop. Everyone else was doing it, so why shouldn’t they?
That, unfortunately, is how certain elements of our media (not all – there are some wonderful, conscientious individual exceptions) view people who behave in an “abnormal” manner. They encourage people to turn voyeur. To watch, to point, to laugh and joke. Much like a circus freak of the 19th century. Very few are willing to take a stand, while there are clicks to be gained. How far we’ve come.
Then – then! – because that wasn’t enough, the news outlets decided they’d turn the images over to social media. Just to make sure that as many people as possible all over Ireland knew that someone in Dublin was in trouble (and that there were traffic disruptions) so that they could all watch him, and the situation play out. Just like a TV programme, for our entertainment.
And we all know how social media works, on a good day. Complete with the usual crimes against spelling and grammar, the comments came flooding in.
From the Irish Times Facebook page:
From the Irish Independent Facebook page:
And from Twitter.
I could go on. I could post hundreds more, all screen shot from yesterday’s news stories (though many of the crueller ones have since been deleted).
Can you sense the sympathy? The compassion? The empathy?
So it appears, for all the mental health awareness campaigns, all the suicide awareness discussions, all the reminders for people to watch out for the signs, for each other, to show a bit of compassion and kindness, to talk and listen, when faced with a person who looked like he was in crisis, Ireland dismissed him without even attempting to understand, and reverted to cold, hard type. Some online expressed their disgust with what was happening – about the cruelty, and about the images. Which is encouraging, to some extent. But those objections were roundly ignored. The snide comments kept coming, and the images stayed.
In Dame Street, 300 people stayed in the area for the duration of the incident, watching and waiting. Waiting for what? Who knows. After four hours, the man alighted, and everyone went home. A day of entertainment over.
And what now of our friend on the roof?
Who knows? And who really cares?
The below image links to an article worth reading, from the consistently excellent satirical site, Waterford Whispers News. Not for the first time, it holds a mirror up to Ireland – to us – and the way we behave when faced with vulnerable people in our society. Time and time again, it’s been demonstrated that we either ignore them, we dismiss them or we simply ridicule them.
How far we’ve come, indeed.
Time to Talk
Today is National Time to Talk Day, and as such, it’s a good day to reflect on what it means to talk, but also what it means to listen. It’s important.
The national conversation around mental health often focuses on the message “Talk to someone”. But to talk, you need to have someone to listen, right?
It can be hard to know what to do if someone decides to talk to you about a mental health issue. They might just feel a bit down, or they might be more worried about themselves. And if they’ve chosen you to talk to, that responsibility can feel a bit daunting, or it may feel like too big a problem for you to take on.
That’s fine. We’re all human.
But if someone decides to talk to you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve chosen you in the hope that you’ll solve all their problems. They may simply need to put how their feelings into words, or share them with someone. Sometimes doing that alone can make all the difference, so having someone to sit and listen and empathise with how they feel can make all the difference.
If you do feel you need some tips on how to say something back, the Green Ribbon website has some really useful advice. And it’s just normal, everyday stuff, not out of anyone’s reach.
This poem by Robert Frost sums it right up.
“When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.”
So today on Time To Talk day, in your conversations , make a point of really listening to what the other person has to say, without distractions. Give them your full attention – give them five minutes or half an hour of your time. When you ask “how are you?” be aware that the answer may not be “I’m grand”.
And that’s grand.
Guest Post – The damage of the ‘temporary depression’ campaign
In light of the last post, and the phenomenal reaction it received, I’ve decided to continue the conversation about mental health on the blog. Over the course of the last week I’ve been contacted by a lot of people, sharing their own experiences, or those of people close to them. It’s been serious food for thought, and served to hammer home just how different each and every person’s mental health experience is and how different their needs are. One of the mails that really stood out was from Sinead Fallon, and with her kind permission I have reproduced it below.
Recent attempts by the media to highlight mental illness have left me feeling more isolated from society than ever. Am I alone? With journalists and commentators jumping over themselves to find the most ‘normal’ cases of mental ill health, we have been regaled with images and stories of average young, middle-class men, suffering from temporary depressive episodes. Throw in the odd celebrity and the most recent charity attempt to raise money to solve the problem.
The problem presented by the ‘temporary depression’ approach is this. As a person with a long term mental illness – Biploar Affective Disorder, I find the campaign disingenuous and dangerous. The stories inevitably involve an episode in which the young male feels down, has no energy, wants to stay in bed all day, and loses interest in life. These are all symptoms of a depressive episode. Depressive episodes are very serious. Depression can ruin your life. These are both true.
The problem is this: all the stories then presented a series of events in which support was received from family, friends, GPs, medication and counselling and the person became ‘normal’ again. The End.
For 1 in 10 people living with a serious mental illness, this is not the case. But we are not heard. Our mental illnesses are life long, we do NOT ‘get over it’ – we learn to accept our fate and live with our illnesses. The presentation of the story in which someone is depressed and gets over it is dangerous, because so many of the people who experience these kind of depressive episodes don’t return to their lives as they knew them, which isn’t always a bad thing by the way. Their illnesses grow and change over the years. They receive new diagnoses of bipolar, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, eating disorders etc. They continue to suffer periodic episodes of psychosis or depression. Their lives never return to how they were before. Relationships are seriously affected. Employment is a serious challenge. Poor physical health is common. The damage of the lifelong mental illness is immeasurable.
The media, like society in general find it difficult to understand us. They want to fix us, find that magic formula to get us back to normal. We have learned the hard way that there is no getting back to normal. There is just acceptance of this new life as the normal. Societal attitudes around mental health in Ireland can lead to stigmatisation, discrimination and social exclusion for those with mental health issues. These attitudes are influenced by messages and opinions coming from politicians, public commentators and the media. When we are seen to refuse to present ourselves as normal and when we refuse to recover as these others have, how does society treat us?
Listening to Bressie tell us all he didn’t ever feel suicidal because he had a good support network was particularly nauseating. Does this mean then that those of us who do feel suicidal or those who have died by suicide did not have a good support network?
Equally the presentation of the ‘mother’ saving the son from depression may leave mothers feeling useless for not being able to solve their son’s mental illnesses. I do not blame in anyway Bressie or the others who shared their stories and I do wish them all the best. I just wish there was more balance in the presentation of the stories. When will a schizophrenic middle aged woman from a working class background sit on Brendan O’ Connors couch? Soon, I hope.
For those who watched and read the stories and who are feeling something similar, please do not give up when you don’t start to experience the recovery spoken of. You are most probably one of the majority of those who need to accept a more difficult fate.
Donal Walsh and Suicide: What’s missing from the debate, and where do we go from here?
There has been lots said and written on the subject of the late Donal Walsh over the past 48 hours. Rarely has the passing of a young man evoked so much emotion and passion among the public, but then, Donal was without a doubt an exceptional young man, who displayed remarkable courage, dignity and bravery as he faced his future knowing he was dying from cancer.
On Wednesday night, RTE 1 showed a documentary entitled “Donal Walsh: My Story”, which followed Donal and his family throughout his last few months as he came to terms with the fact that he was dying. Knowing that he had very little time left, Donal, his friends and family spoke eloquently and earnestly about his treatment, his feelings, his aspirations, and his frustration that he would never get to achieve many of his dreams and goals. The public was already familiar with Donal’s story, having witnessed his candid interview with Brendan O’Connor on the Saturday Night Show in May 2013, where he implored teenagers to think twice before they considered suicide.
RTÉ tends to excel in the genre of documentary making, and as a human interest story, this was an exceptional, evocative and heart-breaking piece of film-making. Donal’s courage, and that of his and his family – mother Elma, father Fionnbar and sister Jema – and his loyal bunch of friends is one of the most inspiring stories of our generation, and a story worth telling. There are lessons to be taken from the way in which Donal faced his illness, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone watching it could fail to be moved.
A central focus of the documentary was Donal’s opinion on teen suicide, as broadcast on the O’Connor interview in May. Statistics had shown a consistent upward trend in recorded suicides in Kerry in previous years, many of those deaths occurring among young people.
“I just didn’t want them to see suicide as a solution to any of life’s problems. It hurts me to see them think about it… to see it among their friends. But it kills me because I’m here fighting for my life for the third time … I’ve no say in anything, and I’m still here waking up every day. And they think that they have a problem, and this might be a solution. That does make me angry, and I’m not going to lie about it. I’ve nothing against people with mental illness. But these people have to realise that there is help.”
His words triggered a nationwide conversation on suicide, and widespread media coverage. Young people claimed that his message had touched them, had changed their outlook, and had resonated in a way that the voices of adults – parents, teachers – had not.
During the documentary, his father, Fionnbar, read from a letter received from a student in Waterford.
“Your story was so powerful and moving. I’m 16 myself, and the thought of going through what you have gone through at the same age is just hard to believe. Many people would have been afraid to say what you’ve said about suicide. It wouldn’t have been politically correct, and all that bullshit. You tell it how it is, and I respect that”.
The words of another student:
“Young people shouldn’t be thinking of dying so soon. They should be just growing up, thinking about what they want to be, what jobs they want to have … that kind of stuff.”
Donal himself said:
“If I’m meant to be a symbol for people to appreciate life more in general, he said, then I’ll be happy to die, if that’s what I’m dying for.”
His father put it in starker terms.
“There is no comeback after death”.
The HSE’s National Office for Suicide Prevention (NOSP) adopted Donal’s message, rolling it out to schools, and embarking on a programme to educate young people on appreciating life before they considered dying by suicide. It’s a good video. But as a strategy to tackle youth suicide, it is lacking. And it is here that the discussion becomes problematic.
There has been much debate raging online since the documentary was aired on the merit of Donal’s message. There is little doubt that it had resonance. It spoke to young people at their level, it moved people of generations older than himself and it made probably anyone who encountered it stop and think. It potentially saved lives. Was it worth saying? Yes, I think so. The phenomenon of suicide clusters and copycat suicides is well documented, and the theory that some suicides are decisions made, not after months of depression, but on the spur of the moment or as a knee-jerk reaction to a traumatic occurrence cannot be discounted. I can’t quote the prevalence of such happenings, nor am I sure what statistical evidence is there to back it up, given the difficulty of collecting such information on suicide. But I do think there was an audience for and a merit to Donal’s message. I’m not convinced we can argue that there was not.
But there are a number of things that are deeply alarming, both within the documentary, and in the way that Donal’s message has been perpetuated by adults almost as a universal truth. What is not acknowledged is the fact that that this fails – and fails utterly – to address the fact the suicidality is just not that simple, and that the factors contributing to any one person’s suicidal intent can differ greatly to the next. Suicidality is also strongly linked with depression. At no point in either the documentary or in the wider campaign has depression been acknowledged as an illness, has its nature been explored, nor has the fact that suicide is very rarely a decision made with a clear and rational mind.
No professionals working in the field of mental health were interviewed during the course of the documentary. No account has been taken, either within or outside of the documentary of the fact that a one-size-fits-all message is not an appropriate way in which to go about formulating a suicide prevention strategy – even a youth suicide prevention strategy.
There have been a number of pieces written in the past 48 hours on depression and suicidality from the point of view from those who have themselves been there , and I urge you to find them, read them, absorb them and think about them. The point has been made that we are now at a stage where people feel supported enough to be able to disclose their experiences, and this alone is evidence of the strides that have been made in this debate.
However, it is absolutely crucial to remember that there are two levels of understanding of suicidality. The understanding of those who have been there, and who have felt that despair, and those who have not. The latter, if they are serious about wanting to help to address this problem, need to take responsibility for learning about the state of mind in which a fellow human being finds themselves to not want to exist anymore. From my own experience, it is born out of a desperation to escape a hellish existence in one’s own mind, where nothing exists but self-loathing, darkness and a sense of being trapped. When I felt suicidal, and contemplated dying, it wasn’t because I wanted to die. I just wanted to escape. I didn’t want to live like that any more, and the only way in which to achieve that was to stop living. To a healthy mind, that’s almost incomprehensible. There is no rationality involved in that particular state of mind. None. But I urge you, try to contemplate it.
Now picture someone telling you “Sure you’ve loads to be thankful for. There are people dying through no fault of their own and you want to kill yourself.” Consider how, in a mind full of despair, hearing those words would make you feel. Would you feel any better about yourself? Already, you can’t find anything to make you feel grateful for living (as illogical as it may be, but remember, there is no logic left). Now, the implication is that you’re selfish, too. Which, in turn, reinforces every negative thought you’ve already had about yourself, and increases that sense of self-loathing. How is that helpful? How?
Above, we had a student dismissing public discourse on suicide as “politically correct” and “bullshit”. This assertion remained unchallenged within the documentary. Suicidality is so complex. It IS delicate. We are still learning how to talk about it in a responsible way. Treating it with sensitivity is not politically correct bullshit. I have no issue with this young man saying it as he sees it, from the point of view of a teenager who has in all likelihood experienced suicide by peers. But I do have an issue with this viewpoint not being challenged by adults, or those who deemed the documentary an appropriate commentary on suicide. Again – it’s just not that simple.
So why, at no stage, has no-one in the public eye, the media, the health professions, while this campaign has been running, and documentary been airing, strongly and explicitly acknowledged that this message, while extremely laudable in one sense, is absolutely not applicable to everyone out there who is contemplating suicide? Why has the negative impact that this message may have had on those in a depressed and suicidal frame of mind not been acknowledged? Why are we consistently fed a strategy of soundbites that may resonate with some, but may alienate others? While NOSP claim that they had the input of a number of professionals in producing the Donal Walsh video on their website to ensure it was appropriate for young people, why did they not acknowledge the complexity of suicidality, the fact that each sufferer is dealing with their own individual struggle? They tell young people about the “value life” message, yet do not acknowledge the difficulties involved in doing so when struggling with a mental illness like depression. This “scratching the surface”, one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t cut it anymore, and if anyone should be acknowledging that, it is one of the few – if not the only – public bodies currently tasked with suicide prevention.
The issues I raise in this post aren’t with brave, dignified Donal Walsh. They are not with his tremendously courageous and generous family and friends. I hope that is absolutely clear. They have lost a son, a brother, a close friend. They have given magnanimously of their time, their privacy and shared their grief with a nation, in order to spread the message of Donal’s courage and dignity. There is hardly a person watching RTÉ 1 on Wednesday night who didn’t want to put their arms around them and take their grief away, or could fail to be inspired by their appetite to inspire massive societal change, as evidenced in the setting up of Donal Walsh Live Life. Donal’s words – which his family explicitly acknowledge were said in anger, by a dying child who never claimed to be an expert on mental health – inspired a wave of emotion, and injected impetus into a conversation we are only starting to have at a national level. And for that, I am certainly grateful.
But they should not be perpetuated as an all-encompassing strategy, nor do they speak to everyone. It is now the responsibility of public policymakers, mental health bodies and organisations (starting with the Minister for Mental Health), medical professionals and indeed, ourselves as a mature, responsible society to continue that conversation, while striving to educate ourselves and others on the nature of suicidality, mental ill-health and depression in a meaningful way.
Soundbites aren’t enough. Platitudes aren’t enough. We’ve all heard messages at this stage like “talk to someone”, “get help”, “there’s always someone out there willing to listen”. They are just not sufficient anymore. We can’t just dump them out there and expect people in distress to find their own way.
Let’s look at this in real, practical terms.
If you were desperate, in the frame of mind where the only relief you could contemplate was not living any more, where would you turn? Who would you talk to? If you make the (difficult and brave) decision to “talk to someone” and seek help, where would you go first? Would you get the support you needed from your family? Friends? Would your employer support you if you need to take time off? Would you even feel comfortable telling your employer? Would you receive the best advice on embarking on the path of medical support such as taking anti-depressants? Would you be able to access the right therapy for you, with a therapist you felt comfortable with? Would your health insurer pay for you to get all the therapy you need? If you don’t have health insurance, how would you go about accessing that therapy? How long would you have to wait to access that therapy? Bear in mind here that you are desperate, and need help quickly. And not just any old help. The right help and treatment for you, as an individual, with individual needs. If you dial 999 in the middle of the night, or contact an out-of-hours GP service, will you get the help you need? We need these assurances.
What if someone came to you in desperation, telling you that they couldn’t cope with living any more, and didn’t know where to turn, would YOU know what to do? Would you know where to go to get help? Would you know what to say, what not to say, how to listen?
Make no mistake, this conversation is merely in its infancy. Donal Walsh and his family have played a huge part in building that conversation. This is not a battle for them to fight alone. What is the HSE doing to address the above questions? What is the Minister for Mental Health doing? What are you and I doing, as members of a mature society with a collective responsibility to each other other than repeating platitudes that make us feel better about ourselves? Are we educating ourselves on how to recognise the signs, how to react?
It’s time to stop paying lip service to suicide prevention, and start coming up with real solutions, fast.
On World Suicide Prevention Day, what can YOU do to prevent suicide?
It’s World Suicide Prevention Day today, Tuesday 10th September. The day, is an awareness day observed annually in order to provide worldwide commitment and action to prevent suicides.
It’s unlikely many of us here in Ireland lack awareness of what is one of the largest killers of our young people. Recent CSO statistics indicate that 507 people took their own lives in Ireland in 2012 – however, as per any suicide reportage, this figure forms only a very small part of the picture. Not all suicides are recorded as such; there are many unreported accepted suicides, and the overall figure masks the occurrence of severe suicide blackspots in certain parts of the country, like Limerick, Wexford, Mayo, Leitrim and Cork, with Limerick numbers the most alarming at 26 in every 100,000. The statistics, though they are only a snapshot, speak for themselves. However, a lack of proper recording and accurate data to work with, particularly to use to spot clusters and trends, is one of the key challenges facing those who fight every day to try and turn the tide of suicide
Regular visitors to the blog will know that I touch on the topic of mental health here the odd time, sometimes in relation to my own experiences, sometimes at a more general level, and occasionally referencing the influence of things like alcohol on our collective mental health. It’s great to see frank, open discussion of mental illness on social media and in the newspapers today; however in the course of the debate, we’re constantly hearing about “breaking down the stigma” as if it’s some big mystery. Stigma is born of ignorance and breeds fear, yet the reality is, each and every one of us has the key to breaking down that stigma, by just learning a little more about the nature of mental ill-health, and by taking small but meaningful steps to challenge it. Yes, you too. It’s not rocket science, and we can all do it. Some thoughts below.
- The key message we’re hearing is “If you’re in difficulty, talk to someone”. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Just reach out, and everything will be okay. Well, you know what? It’s not that bloody easy. Firstly, when you’re in a place where you’re struggling, or convinced that no-one gives a damn about you, and that you might be better off dead, it’s incredibly difficult, nigh impossible, to reach out and talk to somebody. If you do reach out and talk to someone, you may not get the response you hope for, or need. What then? We need to stop placing the onus on people who are suffering to make that first move. This is a collective, worldwide responsibility. It starts with you and me, showing real human kindness to the people around us. Look around you, at your family and friends. If you think that someone is struggling, talk to them. Pick up the phone. Let them know you care. Even if they’re not visibly struggling, tell them anyway. It can be that simple.
- Telling people to “just talk about it” is all well and good. But in a country where we’ve been bred for generations not to talk about things, talking is something not something we’re all very good at. And if you’re the person chosen to talk to, you might have no idea how to handle it. If you do see someone struggling, and you’re not sure what to do or how to talk to them, that’s totally fine. It’s natural. We’re all human; we’re not all counsellors. Sometimes indicating that you’re willing to listen is all that’s needed. And if you need some help, the folks over at See Change have some very practical tips on how to talk and listen. And there are services available to help both you and the person in difficulty – you can call them yourself, pass the details on, or offer to accompany them while they seek help.
- We all have mental health, and we all have a responsibility to look after our own mental health. We are not victims of our minds. Prevention is better than cure, and there are countless things we can do to mind our minds. Exercise, fresh air, spending time with friends, eating well, taking a break from online activity, are all small steps that can have an incrementally positive effect on our own mental – and physical – health.
- Just like most physical ill-health, mental ill-health is not a permanent, unevolving state. Sometimes we’re in good mental health, sometimes, less so. That’s normal. For various reasons, people can go through difficult times where they struggle to cope. Depression can be all-consuming, and for the person experiencing it, it’s hard to believe that this feeling will every pass or that things will get better – but things can and do get better. Depression may be something that will always be part of your life – but it can be managed, in many different ways. Equally, if someone you know is experiencing depression now, with the correct help, there’s every chance they can and will recover.
- It’s heartening to see so many people sharing their experiences online. Sometimes writing things down is therapeutic, and reading those stories from people you might know is oddly reassuring. Let’s start taking the next step, and talking about it face-to-face, with our friends and family. It doesn’t always have to be a big deal. Experiencing mental health difficulties during life’s journey is perfectly normal, and a simple acknowledgement can go a long way. This was the thing I found hardest to do, but was the one helped me the most.
I experienced my worst depressive experience in my 20s, and at the time felt in despair that things would never get better. They did. I learned some valuable things over the course of that time that I carry with me every day,
- While depression might always be a feature of my life, it doesn’t define me. I am far more than that.
- Depression can be managed. Proactively and reactively, there are things I can do to combat it. It’s not always easy to react, which is why I try to be proactive.
- Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. In fact, the very act of doing something about it made me feel stronger.
- “This too shall pass” became my motto For me, accepting that I wasn’t well was important, and sometimes I just needed to put my head down and let it pass, rather than fighting against it. Pass it did, and pass it will, if and when it happens again.
These are lessons I learned on my own journey, but maybe they’re things than can help non-sufferers understand the nature of the illness and remove some of the mystery about it.
Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. Preventing suicide isn’t something for “other people” to do. It’s up to you, and you, and you, and me. So do something. Pick up the phone, knock on that door, send that message. Speaking as one who knows, it could make all the difference.
Mental Health, Mixed Messages and the Green Ribbon
It’s May, a new summer season is upon us (apparently), and around us a new conversation is finding its feet. Discussion of mental health issues and suicide, in particular, has never been more prominent than in recent times, yet rarely has the conversation been so intense and the messages been more mixed.
We’ve had weeks of robust debate around abortion, where the term ‘suicide’ has been bandied around frequently, carelessly. Public discussion is hugely important in shaping perceptions of mental health, and regardless of the abortion issue, suggestions of large teams of professionals having to ‘verify’ the state of mind of a suicidal pregnant woman arguably sent a subtle, but potentially very damaging message.
We’ve witnessed also the late Donal Walsh’s impassioned campaign against suicide. At 16, Donal knew he was dying, and spoke eloquently of his anger that some of his peers were choosing to end their lives, when he so badly wanted to live. There is little doubt that Donal’s brave handling of his illness earned him respect and admiration. While he may not have fully acknowledged the mindset that drives someone to take their own life, nevertheless if his sentiment, ‘suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem’ resonated with just one young person and made them think twice, then it hit the mark.
Another to add his voice to the discussion has been musician Niall Breslin, who’s spoken candidly about the crippling panic attacks he suffered for years. The significance of someone like Bressie – likeable and popular among the younger, more vulnerable demographic – talking openly about his own mental health simply cannot be underestimated. He is also an active campaigner who insists that suicide should just not be an option; it “should not even be part of the conversation”. Instead, he focuses on the practical, and is adamant that young people need to know exactly where to turn. While there are many options, he says, quite correctly that they are not always clear or obvious, and they need to be so. Bressie has also highlighted the negative effects of excessive alcohol consumption – something that for various reasons is routinely ignored in mental health discussions but undoubtedly contributes in no small way to the problem.
What’s great about Bressie’s input is not just the way he normalises mental health, but his reassurance that mental ill-health is treatable, and that we have the power to make positive changes. Too often these conversations focus on negative outcomes like suicide, but it’s vital to show that frequently outcomes are positive, people do recover and that we can and should take steps to mind our minds like we do our bodies.
Last Saturday, the spectacularly poignant Pieta House Darkness into Light walk saw 40,000 people in parks nationwide rising before dawn, donning yellow t-shirts and walking together towards the sunrise in a powerful show of solidarity, remembrance, and hope. The emotion was palpable – unsurprising considering that pretty much every participant had in some way been touched by suicide. All were walking to send a powerful message that change is needed, and quickly.
May is Green Ribbon month. Like pink ribbons are synonymous with breast cancer, the green ribbon is an international symbol – of challenging the stigma of mental health problems. See Change, the National Stigma Reduction Partnership has launched a month-long campaign to get people talking openly.
We are however, already doing that, and often the advice given to those who are struggling is to “talk”. What we don’t acknowledge is that often, starting conversations is the hardest part, and that many of us simply don’t know how. Even harder is knowing how to listen, without necessarily offering solutions which may not be helpful. The Green Ribbon campaign offers helpful, practical tips. Simple things. Ask someone how they are. Don’t feel the need to jump in with a solution – just listen. Be patient. Sometimes, tiny things like a text message make the biggest difference.
Above all, we must realise that collectively we all have responsibility. An act of kindness costs nothing, while simply looking out for those around you can be priceless. This is the season of hope. Let’s make it a mission to spread some light this May. And get talking.
Published on Newstalk.ie on Friday 17th May 2013
Booze-free Lent comes to an end
I was asked to write this piece for Newstalk.ie on my experience of giving up alcohol for Lent.
The piece was published on the Newstalk site on Thursday 28th March 2013.
As an average thirtysomething woman, I’d classify my relationship with alcohol as relatively healthy.Like most, I enjoy partaking of a glass of wine or three of a Friday, or sinking a pint of the black stuff over a chat with friends. I may have suffered an occasional hangover, yes. The end of an odd night out may have been a little hazy. I might have missed a few Sunday mornings, buried in the Horrors under my pillow. But “big nights” nowadays are few and far between, and the idea of bypassing the booze for Lent wasn’t high on my agenda.
So what prompted the decision? I bit the bullet for a number of reasons (none of them religious).I was unemployed, having left my job to embark on the uncertainty of a career change. I’d beenfeeling the effects of an unhealthy holiday season. And crucially, I was stony broke. The stage was set.
Around the same time, I’d written a piece on my blog about attitudes to alcohol in Ireland called“The Elephant in the Room”, questioning why, with suicide levels so high, no-one really questions the effect our relationship with alcohol has on mental wellbeing. The piece was published on a national news site and the reaction on social media was astonishing. I was inundated with replies relating the pressure people felt to drink. Some reported concealing non-drinking, or avoiding social occasions altogether to avoid the hassle of justifying their choice. Non-drinkers disliked the messiness of drunken nights out, and being met with suspicion and mistrust. It appears that “peer pressure” is not solely the preserve of children or adolescents.
On the back of this, I saw the Lenten endeavour as a timely personal experiment. I’d never gone “ off the booze” for a deliberate, sustained period since I came of drinking age, and wanted to see how I’d cope with cold sobriety in social situations, and the reactions I would encounter. I also wanted to do my own bit to challenge attitudes.
I embarked with a sense of trepidation. I didn’t want to avoid social occasions, but neither did I relish the thought of feeling socially stunted without a drink or two. The first couple of weeks were difficult, and I often, rather worryingly, found myself craving a glass of wine, particularly at weekends. However, with the exception of the odd “Why are you doing this to yourself?”, and“Jesus, I could never do that – in March, are you mad?!”, friends were largely encouraging.
How did I cope? Ultimately – and this may appear obvious – I found company was key. I enjoyed some great nights with friends as the sole non-drinker, without it being an issue for either party. In contrast, I attended a wedding at which I knew barely anyone, and struggled. I felt my personality had fled, hand-in-hand with my alcohol crutch, leaving my confidence legless and my dancing even more uncoordinated than usual. I settled into sobriety, though and while I missed being able to have“just the one”, not drinking began to feel normal.
So, six weeks on, was it worthwhile? Yes, absolutely. Admittedly, it’s a relatively short period of time, but what they say is true – I feel healthier, happier and clearer of mind. The convenience of hopping into the car after a night out, and waking hangover-free were definite positives. I certainly didn’t miss the Monday beer blues. The time out has helped me to recalibrate my attitude towards alcohol, and I have a feeling I’m likely in future to indulge a little less, and enjoy it a little more.
Ultimately, however, I don’t see myself as a non-drinker, and rather than moving towards the divisiveness of non-drinkers having their own social spaces and activities, what I’d like is a happy medium where drinkers and non-drinkers can feel more comfortable socialising together. I’d also like to see social occasions focusing less on alcohol consumption, and I’d love to see less pressure placed on those drink moderately to consume more.
Would I do it again? Probably.
But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just looking forward to some chocolate this Easter.
Hello Sunday Morning … or good afternoon, sobriety
So, as a follow-on from my last post, a quick update on my alcohol abstinence resolution. I deliberately haven’t started another blog with Hello Sunday Morning as I find it difficult enough to update this one regularly. Three weeks in, how’s it going?
Well, it’s like this. It’s bloody HARD.
Firstly, I had no idea I was quite so fond of red wine. But for the last three weeks, I find it occupying more of my thoughts than is probably healthy. It doesn’t help that we are major fans of it here and the wine rack is consequently a constant reminder.. As I predicted, what I really miss the most is that lovely single glass of wine of an odd evening, but I suppose that’s just shown me how much it’s become a habit, unbeknownst to myself.
What’s come as more of a surprise however, having never abstained from alcohol for any meaningful period before, is the realisation of how much I have come to rely on it over the past 15-odd years as a social lubricant. On certain occasions, at least. Take the following example. I attended a wedding last week, at which I knew barely anyone. From start to finish, I tried hard to get stuck in and enjoy it, but wow, despite the happiness in the air, the beauty of the bride, the deliciousness of the food, it was a struggle. To the extent that it actually felt like an ordeal. The company was decent, but I felt like I’d become socially stunted overnight – like I’d lost my personality. I stood at the bar ordering soft drinks a few times, and on each occasion had to stop myself from ordering a (very strong) alcoholic beverage. There were other factors at play, admittedly, including feeling lethargic and unwell, but it was downright painful, and ultimately a bit pointless. I felt bad about myself and my apparent inability to relax without alcohol. It was undoubtedly the single biggest test I’m likely to face during this period, but it served a purpose as part of this “reflective” journey, so not entirely in vain.
On the other hand, I’ve spent a few evenings in the company of good friends lately, surrounded by food and alcohol. On one occasion, dinner with a group of girlfriends I wasn’t alone in abstaining, but others had the usual reasons like pregnancy and cars. That was grand – no hardship involved. The second, an evening gathering in a friend’s house where I was the only one abstaining. I expected that to be difficult, particularly as I arrived a little late to the party. On the contrary, I had one of the best evenings I’ve had in months. Laughed til there were tears in my eyes, didn’t feel in any way out of place and I even managed to stay out til 5am. No difficulty at all (apart from the lemonade-induced sugar high). It felt really refreshing to be part of a group who didn’t question me or force the issue when I wasn’t drinking. I didn’t feel in any way that my not partaking set me apart from the conversation and neither did I feel that my being sober made them feel ill at ease. (At least I hope not!)
The drawback to staying out til 5am on a Saturday night is that Sunday morning slips away from you. I woke up at 8.30am with the beginnings of a migraine I’d staved off the day before, so I put my head under the pillow and the day didn’t see me until noon had passed. Then there was GAA on d’telly. So I kinda failed at being wonderfully active and reclaiming my Sunday morning (armchair sports don’t count, apparently). Still, you can’t win ’em all.
So. Do I feel any better for not drinking? Em, honestly, no. Not in the slightest.
I’m a bit disappointed – I thought I’d feel happier, healthier, clearer of mind, but to be fair, I have to look hard at myself and admit that other aspects of my lifestyle at the moment are probably counter-productive. I’m still not working, so my routine has started to slip recently, my sleep pattern is all over the place, my motivation levels are low, and not having had an income since Christmas has imposed its own restrictions and pressures. This year so far has been full of emotional upheaval and uncertainty, but to my great excitement, I’m starting a new role this week with an organisation I’m thrilled to be working with. I’m looking forward to the challenge and to feeling a little less at sea once I bed in. Not to mention, feeling a bit more useful to society.
So, three weeks in, what have I learned? Well, I’ve discovered that I really like red wine, that you think about things like red wine a lot more when you know you can’t have them, and that being at ease in social situations probably depends a lot more on the people you’re with than the amount of alcohol you’re consuming. All in all, not exactly groundbreaking revelations, but part of a personal journey that so far I’m ultimately glad I’ve undertaken.
Also, having the willpower of an amnesiac squirrel on a regular basis, I’ve surprised myself by discovering some reserves of stubbornness, and I know I will see this through. In what is probably the more surprising of progress updates, I have also managed to stay away from crisps. (Even when no-one can see me.) And there is also the bonus of feeling infinitely superior to an undisclosed number of our elected political representatives, in that I managed to stay sober on Prom Night.
So here’s to the next month. I’d love to know how feel HSMers are getting on, or how anyone who’s been through this process before deals with those difficult social situations – so feel free to leave a comment below with some wise words. I’ll repay you in 2007 Marquis de Rascale (my housemate’s).
Til next time!
The Great Lenten Challenge, or How I Will Cope With Six Weeks Of No Alcohol
On the back of my last blog post, I’ve been doing some thinking.(A little thinking time is a dangerous thing, and I happen to have a lot of that on my hands recently).
I’ve been toying for a while with the idea of giving up alcohol. Not permanently, just for a spell. Not a big deal, I’m sure. Lots of people go ‘on the dry’ for January, or while they are training for an event, or while they’re pregnant. But while I’ve thought about it before, I’ve never managed to cut out alcohol completely, while carrying on with life and social engagements in the normal way. I think that’s the most difficult part – not shying away from social engagements on the basis of not drinking.
I met up for a chat last week with the lovely John Buckley of SpunOut, and among other things we talked about alcohol, and our attitudes towards it. John has given up alcohol for six months, and is blogging about it over here.
John also told me about the Irish launch of Hello Sunday Morning, which is being timed to coincide with the last episode of Des Bishop’s TV show, “Under the Influence”. HSM is an initiative originating in Australia, which involves giving up alcohol for a while, in order to reflect on your drinking behaviour, and see what impact it has on your life. You share your story, in order to contribute to a better drinking culture. In particular, it encourages you to reclaim Sunday mornings, which are often written off due to heavy Saturday nights. So for the month of March, I’ll be blogging about that either here or elsewhere.
I’m starting a little early though. I’m not sure sure what it is about Lent that encourages me to attempt something new every year (with varying degrees of success). But it seems to me to be a nice round period of time to try and do something new – not long enough to be excessively difficult and not short enough to be too little a challenge. So as well as the booze, I’ll be giving up crisps. Those of you who know me will know that this will not come easily….
With regards to my previous blog post, I know excessive alcohol consumption is not good for me. I know that when I drink to excess, I feel rubbish for about three days afterwards. My motivation disappears, I feel tired, I don’t want to leave my bed and the ‘beer blues’ hit me like a ton of bricks. Add to this days of self-beration and it all gets a bit much. I doubt this is unusual, either. So I for one and looking forward to eliminating those feelings for a while.
The difficult part will be the numerous social occasions that are cropping up in March. Be that football/rugby matches, St. Patrick’s Day, the couple of birthday celebrations, the hen night… the list goes on. So it’ll be a challenge. But hey, no point in doing something easy. I already know that more than anything I’ll miss that first glorious glass of red on a Friday night, or the creaminess of a single, leisurely pint of Guinness more than I’ll miss the big sessions. But they all count!
Anyone else with me? I’ll be posting occasional updates over on Twitter using the hashtag #boozefreelent – if you’re embarking on something similar do give me a shout.
In the meantime, I’ll be bidding a fond farewell to these and looking forward to a healthier happier me!
Mental Health and Alcohol – the elephant in the room
This post was published on thejournal.ie on the 6th March 2013.
At a time when mental health is finally well and truly a ‘hot topic’, firmly embedded in the public consciousness, I can’t help feeling that we’re quietly omitting a vital part of the discussion – our relationship as a nation with alcohol, and how it affects our mental wellbeing.
The term “mental health” is a wide-ranging one, and it can be argued that at the moment it has somewhat negative connotations and is almost synonymous, in public discourse, with mental ill-health and suicide – something that needs to quickly change. Slowly but surely, however, we are witnessing a realisation that preventative measures and positive mental health promotion, particularly among young people, are ultimately excellent and necessary long-term strategies on which we need to focus as a matter of urgency to tackle the current suicide epidemic.
In the wake of an abrupt economic crash, attitudes have changed rapidly in an adjusting Ireland. While it can be argued that a return to more prudent values is to be welcomed, there is an ongoing struggle to adapt. We have not adequately dealt with the practical reality of the economic fall-out that has decimated employment, household income and consumer confidence. There is evidence to suggest that pressure resulting from economic difficulties is a contributory factor to the increase in the number of suicides we have seen in recent years. To attribute the rise purely to this, however is to simplify the issue greatly. There are biological, sociological and psychological factors at play, and these are often intertwined – just as everyone is different, the individual causes of suicide vary greatly.
But let’s pull back from suicide for a moment, as that’s just one element of mental health we need to look at. Mental “wellbeing” is a term I’d prefer to focus on for now. And while most of us at this stage know that there are steps we can take to look after our emotional health, it’s apparent that our alcohol consumption behaviour and attitudes often directly contradict this. While it’s been touched on by aspects of the media in recent weeks, notably by Breda O’Brien in the Irish Times on Saturday January 26th and also as part of the Frontline discussion on mental health on Monday January 28th, it remains the elephant in the room when it comes to the national conversation we are attempting to have about mental wellbeing.
Our drinking habits and our attitudes towards alcohol in Ireland are what can probably fairly be classified as “extreme”. A recent study conducted by Millward Brown Lansdowne on behalf of Drinkaware.ie, indicated that while Irish people drink less frequently than our EU counterparts, our consumption is three times higher than the EU average. (Drinkaware.ie, interestingly, is an initiative developed by MEAS, a group comprised of various players in the alcohol industry, under the guise of social responsibility. The site contains lots of eye-opening information about the effects of alcohol, including its impact on relationships and mental health.)
In particular, attitudes among our young people are telling. The cross-border survey, “Alcohol Consumption and Alcohol Related Harm in Ireland” published by the National Advisory Committee on Drugs (NACD) last year found that a third of drinkers aged between 18 and 24 consumed the equivalent of nine standard drinks on a typical night out, and regard having at least five standard drinks on a night out as the “norm”. The Department of Health’s recommended weekly low risk drinking limits are 17 standard drinks for a man and 11 for a woman. So right there, that’s half your weekly intake, in one night.
So it’s clear that our attitudes to alcohol and alcohol consumption are somewhat skewed. The vast majority of our social occasions centre around the consumption of alcohol. Take,for example the prevalance of holding nearly every celebration in a licenced establishment, or if it is held in the home, accompanying it with carry-out alcohol. While there is a marked growth in outdoor, health-based activities, it’s not uncommon to celebrate a physical achievement such as a marathon or a triathlon in the pub. Even childhood occasions like christenings and first communions are commonly hosted in pubs.
There’s nothing wrong with this (I’m not writing this to judge) but why not ask why this is? Why the inherent dependence on alcohol to have a good time? Are we lacking so much in confidence in ourselves and our own personalities that we need use of alcohol as a social lubricant in order to let our hair down and truly enjoy ourselves? Alcohol consumption is pervasive. It’s everywhere. It’s practically impossible to avoid it. And the evidence indicates that we actively depend on it. Why, more importantly, are we so uncomfortable admitting this? And why are people who call it out and suggest that it might not always be healthy, dismissed as killjoys?
Minister Roisin Shorthall, during her time in government prioritised a strategy to tackle alcohol intake and abuse, including placing restrictions on alcohol sponsorship of and advertising at sports events, yet met with resistance both from within government and the alcohol industry. Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Leo Varadkar expressed concern that banning sponsorship would impact negatively on sports performance across the country – and incredibly, in this he is correct, as we now find ourselves in the questionable situation where our sporting bodies have become heavily reliant on the alcohol industry for funding. It can be argued that this is something of a double-edged sword, given that evidence demonstrates that young people are more likely to be influenced by the advertising of alcohol.
The bottom line in the debate around alcohol and mental health is that alcohol is, beyond a doubt, a recognised depressant. Research has demonstrated that it can have an adverse effect on our mental health, affecting our ability to cope with everyday challenges and bigger traumas. Critically, the connection between alcohol and suicide has been highlighted, and the fact that suicide victims are frequently found to have alcohol in their bloodstream points to a concern that alcohol can lower inhibitions enough for a person to act on suicidal thoughts that they may not have, otherwise. In one of the most damning statistics on alcohol you will ever read, the World Health Organisation estimates that the risk of suicide increases EIGHTFOLD when a person is abusing alcohol, compared to a person who is not.
Yet we continue to blithely ignore this enormous elephant in the room, because, the truth it, it’s easier to blame other factors than it is to look inwards and examine our own attitudes and behaviour. In continuing to place alcohol at the centre of our social interactions, we are all, each and every one of us, complicit in the problem. Harsh? Perhaps, but it’s an uncomfortable truth. We may not all drink to excess; neither might we all abuse alcohol but in failing to question the status quo or actively engage in alternatives to alcohol-reliant social occasions, we are all contributing to this problem. Every time you question someone who is not having a drink, or try to persuade them to “leave the car” when they choose to drive on a night out, or indeed, accept without question the behaviour of a friend who is clearly consistently drinking too much, we are contributing. And crucially, we are propagating and reinforcing these attitudes, because this is what our young people witness as they grow up. Not to mention perpetuating the “drunken Paddy” stereotype abroad, in countries where people mange to live with licensed premises that remain open through the night without turning into rabid binge-drinkers and functioning alcoholics.
So what can we do to change this culture? (Because this is what it is – a culture.) I don’t personally believe that measures such as restricting sales of alcohol, either at pubs and off-licences ultimately tackle the issue. And why should you or I not have the choice to buy a bottle of wine to enjoy at 10.30pm on a Friday night if we want? Or why should I have to leave the pub at 12.30pm on a Saturday night, because the law dictates that at this stage, I’ve had enough to drink? Rather, this change is an attitudinal one and needs to come from within – from within ourselves and our society. I’ve come up with a few suggestions – feel free to add your own in the comments below.
Firstly, let’s think about our reactions. Don’t judge a friend or acquaintance for not consuming alcohol. Don’t make them feel they have to invent an excuse for not drinking, once they make that choice. Don’t ridicule them, or make them feel that they ‘re not actively partaking in the occasion, just because they’re not drinking alcohol. Language is powerful.
Secondly, let’s think outside the box a little. Why the need to celebrate every little event or hold every single get-together in the pub? It’s a little unimaginative, frankly. A friend of mine organises a weekly social run in the Phoenix Park. He extends an open invitation to friends, and it’s well-attended. He doesn’t even go to the pub afterwards. And it’s fun. Imagine! And do occasions that focus on children really need to involve alcohol?
Thirdly, let’s learn to have a little more confidence in ourselves and our personalities. We’re great, we Irish. We have a wit that is rarely equalled, but excessive alcohol consumption doesn’t always make us wittier, or more confident, or more attractive. (Usually the opposite, in fact.) Often, it doesn’t even enhance our enjoyment of a night out. Or the following day, for that matter. I myself can confirm this beyond all shadow of a doubt, having tested the theory more times than I care to recall.
Fourthly – and I say this conscious of the sanctimony it may indicate, but does not intend – let’s embrace moderation. Alcohol consumed in moderation is enjoyable (and sometimes, depending on what you read, pretty good for you). It’s also more inclusive and conducive to drinkers and non-drinkers enjoying a night out in each others’ company.
Let’s look at alcohol a little differently. Rather than a mere inebriant, alcohol’s pretty nice with food. A nice red with a steak being the obvious example, but there are independent brewing companies who are marketing their craft beers as food accompaniments, and it’s another way to enjoy a tipple without making it the focus.
Lead by example. Sure, we’ve no obligation to do so, but our young people are watching, and it’s more important than you think.
Pubs – how about offering some appealing alternatives to alcohol? I’m done with Rock-more-expensive-than-a-pint-Shandy, and there are only so many sparking waters one can drink. How about some decent non-alcoholic beers? Palatable ginger ale? And less of a visible sneer when I ask for a non-alcoholic drink, thank you – smile, be polite and think of the often extortionate mark-up.
If you do want to check out alternatives, check out http://hellosundaymorning.org/ – an international initiative aimed at changing and recreating attitudes to alcohol that has just been launched in Ireland by comedian Des Bishop in conjunction with his RTE TV series, Under the Influence. Hello Sunday Morning is an initiative that says it’s perfectly fine not to drink lots all the time, and while you may not want to give up alcohol, it allows you to take some some “time out” – periods of three or six months are recommended in order to give you time to reflect on your drinking behaviour and reclaim the Sunday mornings that are frequently lost to Saturday night alcohol consumption. Most people return to drinking alcohol afterwards, but ultimately the time out can assist you if you want to change your drinking patterns.
Finally, let’s face up to the truth. If we genuinely do give a damn about the problem that is mental ill-health in this country, and want to be the change, we need to do more than simply call on the government to address the issue. While we urgently need to channel resources towards education and prevention, it’s all too easy to deflect responsibility. Like it or not, most of us are part of the problem, and we need to start taking some ownership – and fast. Examining our own contribution to the problem doesn’t necessarily mean rejecting alcohol, or seeing it as the enemy – merely becoming a little more thoughtful in our attitudes, behaviour and discourse around alcohol consumption. Then, and only then will we start to turn the tide and tackle one of the root causes of the suicide plague that blights our society today.
Dark Nights of the Soul
Ireland. The land of a thousand welcomes. Where the grass is green, the sun is rare, the Guinness is black (or ruby red, if you’re a purist) and the craic is mighty. Sure it’s a great little country altogether we have. Isn’t it?
Well, it is. For the most part. Unless you’re suffering from mental ill-health, that is.
Ireland, for all its warmth and revelry, its friendliness and humour, struggles to deal with mental health issues. As a population, we don’t really like the thought of anyone being “not right in the head”. We regard those who are “a bit touched” with pity, suspicion and even fear. We exude patronising pity for those who “suffer with their nerves”. We don’t talk about mental ill-health in the same way as we talk about physical ill-health, and if someone shows signs of mental “frailty” they are labelled, for life.
Come to think of it, talking about feelings on any level, apart from the most superficial, tends to be a challenge, particularly if you’re male. And especially not with other males.
Something I’ve noticed over the past couple of years in Ireland is the big increase in media coverage of mental health – and mental ill-health. Be it blogs, websites, articles, newspaper reports dealing with depression and other mental illnesses, this is an area which is generating more conversation than ever before – and not before time. Organisations like Spunout.ie, Headstrong, Grow, and Shine to name but a few of many, have been working to push these issues into the the public arena and popular discourse, and are slowly but surely building conversation, knocking down walls and very, very gradually reducing the stigma around mental illness. An initiative which has really pushed the boat out in terms of working to reduce stigma around mental health problems is
See Change, an alliance formed by over 40 voluntary organisations, state agencies, universities and youth groups including those named above. Their work has really impressed me so far, particularly their ‘Make a Ripple’ campaign, which comprised of stories by real people who have been affected by these issues, serves to remind us that mental ill-health is not solely the preserve of people we don’t know.
This isn’t a post about my own experiences of depression. I’m one of the luckier ones. In my lifetime, I’ve dealt with two pretty bad bouts of the blues, both severe enough to necessitate time off work and both harsh enough to make me wonder through the darkness of despair if life would ever look any brighter again and if I would be better off dead. I’m not going to write at any great length about how waking up in the morning during a period of depression is almost a disappointment… nor about the way it saps your energy and motivation, how broken sleeps provide no respite, contributing only to sustained exhaustion. I don’t intend to dwell on the guilt you feel for your lack of enthusiasm when nothing moves you. Neither will I write much about how, during a period of depression, you become your own worst enemy, locking yourself away, isolating yourself, distancing yourself from the people around you and focusing helplessly on the negative thoughts, feeding the selfishness of the illness until you are trapped in a spiral of misery so intense that all you want to do is go to sleep and not wake up.
No, for those who want to read about the experience of depression in depth, there are plenty of accounts out there, written by those souls courageous enough to share.Like I said, I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve learned to deal with it. Every so often, another wave will appear, out of nowhere to wash me under, but as any bad surfer knows, sometimes it’s easier to duck beneath the wave and let it roll over you than standing up and trying to fight it. Acceptance has been half the battle, for me.
It does sometimes feel like a constant, exhausting fight, keeping the darkness at bay. A feeling I’m sure many a sufferer will identify with… but to live in fear is to let it dominate your life and I will absolutely not allow that to happen.
Sometimes though, it’s hard.
Everyone deals with things differently, and for me, I’ve always found the internet a ‘safe’ place to share. (That’s why I think Aware’s online support groups are a fantastic initiative.) As per the bio, I don’t much like talking about myself. I like asking questions more than I like giving answers, and I would struggle, face-to-face to talk to many of my friend about this. Only a handful know that I ever suffered with depression, and it’s never really mentioned. I feel this is partially because, I think, having never suffered it themselves, they cannot empathise. Harsh? Yeah, probably. And a bit unfair – given that we just don’t know what anyone else is dealing with in their own head.
But it’s no way meant to be derogatory. In my experience, there is a divide between “them” and “us”. Anyone who has ever suffered from depression will comprehend, and those with no experience simply cannot understand. They can sympathise, but can’t empathise with the despair. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a good thing, for them. I find however, if I say I’m feeling down, it’s awkward. After a while when it doesn’t lift, people become impatient, or bored. I’m not saying it’s their fault. Naturally, it’s frustrating for them too when they’re getting nowhere. But I sense the impatience, and knowing I am the cause stresses me and upsets me even further. Therefore, I just find it’s easier not to talk about it.
And I couldn’t, in a million years, begin to imagine telling my current employers. I don’t think there is any place for mental “weakness” in business, and I have unfortunately seen very real evidence of this. I have imagined the conversation in my head once or twice, for laughs. A couple of recent initiatives which have approached the issue from the ‘preventative’ side though, like stress management courses and an emphasis on fresh air and exercise, are positive and ones that I hope are not just tokenism, and will contribute in a small meaningful way to the mental health of all employees who participate, whether they realise it or not.
It’s my hope that all the work being done at the minute by the organisations above can somehow bridge the gap between ‘published’ experiences and real life, and that the conversation can become relevant to all of us. That’s where the real challenge lies. And this is a challenge that needs to be taken on – from the top down. Any politician who actively promotes the issue of mental health is worth their weight to this country in gold. It’s all very well to say that it’s good to talk about these things. We can say that til we’re blue in the face. We know it’s good to talk.
It’s translating the rhetoric into reality, and dealing with mental ill-health in a positive manner when it affects you, or me or someone close to us, and actually talking about it when it happens – that’s what will ultimately show that we are winning this battle, and my fear is that it’s easier to talk the talk than walk the walk. These organisations need to position themselves in such a way that they are accessible to those who have very little strength to actively reach out. And let’s encourage those of us who are stronger to look out for others. I fear that the disconnect remains, but only by working together (and looking out for one another) can we erode this “strong, silent” mentality and help make those dark nights of the soul a little less lonely.
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