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.

 

Germanwings plane crash Alps memorial

“Today is tough … but I also know that I have much to give”

“I believe, whether rightly or wrongly, that there’s a stereotypical definition of someone who suffers from depression … That stereotype is completely inaccurate.”

Somebody I know got in touch and asked me to share the below piece they wrote, with the hope that it might resonate with someone; that it might just help someone. It’s candid, and it’s courageous, and it can’t have been easy to write. I’d ask that if it strikes a chord with you, you might share it. And try to remember that no matter how low you feel, how despairing, that chances are, you too have more to give.

Thanks to the writer for entrusting me with his words, which I have reproduced in full below.

“I’ll miss Doggy when I die”….The first words I heard this morning when I walked into my daughter’s bedroom. She was in floods of tears. I comforted her as best I could telling her that she has many many years ahead of her and that Mammy and Daddy love her lots. I don’t know what upset her, possibly a bad dream, but it’s fair to say that 5 minutes later she was her usual chatty, good humoured self and eating her Weetabix. Doggy isn’t actually a dog, but a cuddly toy that could even be a lamb, and she’s had it since she was born, which, incidentally is 5 years ago next week.

The incident got me thinking as to how resilient children are, but also, how incidents in childhood, while quickly forgotten on the surface, can dwell in the subconscious and lead to issues in later years. I’m far from being a psychologist, but suffering in later life as a result of a childhood incident is certainly true of me. I have suffered from depression for 24 years, since I was 17 years old, and I can pinpoint exactly what lead to it, and like my daughter is now, I was 4 years old at the time, nearly 5, and for a short period of time was not in my parents direct care. The whats and whys will remain with me to the grave – neither of my parents are, or ever were aware of what happened. My Dad has passed away since, and were my mother to become aware of the details, I think it would kill her too.

I’ve kept my depression to myself for every single day of the last 24 years. My wife knows what happened when I was a child, she’s the only one I’ve ever opened up to about it, but I’ve never told her of the darkness that consumes me almost daily. Maybe that’s selfish, or maybe it’s selfless, I really don’t know, but it’s the way I deal with it. My close friends would say I’m moody, or “thick’ as they put it, but again, none of them would have any idea as to how difficult every day is. I don’t know how best to explain that – probably because I’m quite extroverted, and put myself in situations through music and drama, where I’m in the public eye. Because people see me as having the confidence to sing or act in front of hundreds, I couldn’t therefore possibly suffer from depression? I’ve recently completed a musical, in which, my role was that of a depressed, angry, loner, a role that I feel I did justice to. Why do I feel I did it justice? Because it was easy for me to portray the real me. It’s ironic, how many people, many strangers included, who have approached me on the street since to congratulate me, and asking how I was able to deliver such a difficult role……if only they knew just how easy it was for me on this occasion.

To watch a football match, musical, or a play, or even to watch a band play a gig on stage, is to see a snapshot in time of that player, actor or musician. The audience sees what the eye allows them. I believe, whether rightly or wrongly, that there’s a stereotypical definition of someone who suffers from depression, one of someone introverted, unable to engage, sitting in a dark room popping anti depressants, suicidal, and certainly not someone who would be able to take to a football pitch or a musical stage. That stereotype is completely inaccurate. My depression, and I can only speak for myself, manifests itself in a completely different manner.

Depression for me has meant that the primary issue I have difficulty controlling, is my anger. I’m highly prone to becoming angry at the drop of a hat – not in violent terms, but in terms of opposing someone or something, or becoming irritable over the most mundane of issues. This is where I feel sorry for my family, because as the closest people to me, they endure it most. I can only imagine that I’m difficult to be around at times, and damn close to impossible when I’m finding things most difficult. I’m also highly critical of myself, and have found myself being too hard on, and too critical of my daughter as a result. She’s only a child for God’s sake!! This is the one thing that I find upsets me most. I’ve also found myself to be prone to particular “triggers” that turn things dark for me very, very quickly. The reason for me taking to the keyboard today, (the first time I’ve done such a thing), is as a result of such an occasion yesterday which has left me feeling so worthless that I could crawl into a corner and die. My wife, who is normally my rock, was quite irritable herself yesterday. During a conversation between me, her, and her immediate family, I badgered her on a non issue, which led to her telling me to “Fuck Off”. This in itself I wouldn’t tend to take to heart, but it was the manner in which it was delivered, and the venom in her voice that knocked me completely, leading me to start questioning whether or not she has any respect for me any more, or whether indeed there may even be someone else, someone better in her life.

I’m probably in as lonely a place today as I’ve been in years. It’s just been my daughter and I at home today, which is normally a bit of a lift for me because we have such fun together, but today, I’ve found myself becoming the stereotype – wanting to sleep, I’ve barely eaten, and yes, if it wasn’t for my daughter, I don’t honestly know what scene my wife would return from work tonight to find.

I’ve lost 2 close friends to suicide in the last 3 years. There have been times when I’ve been at my lowest, that I’ve considered the same. Today is one of those days. However, I’ve seen first hand, the devastation of mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, a wife and a girlfriend as a result of those 2 deaths, not to mention the questions of close friends that have been left unanswered. The main reason that even though it may cross my mind, I don’t think I’m capable of taking my own life, is the sound that I can hear coming from the next room, the sound of my daughter singing “Let It Go”, from “Frozen” for the 100th time today!!! It’s one of the few things today that has brought a smile to my face. She’s dancing round the room with glitter falling from her “Anna dress”, all over the floor. I’m glad she’s in there and I’m in here, so that she can’t see the only thing falling in this room – my tears on the keyboard.

Frozen Elsa costume

That aside, while I’m finding today to be difficult, I know that even though some days are tough, I also know that I have much to give. I have another musical in a few weeks to prepare for, I have a gig tonight, but most of all, I have a daughter that needs me and while there are times that she might wonder, she has a father who loves her more than she’ll ever know. I have a wife who, despite what happened yesterday, I would walk across hot coals for. The shortest day of the year is 5 days past, so things can only get brighter, plus the football starts in less than 2 weeks.

I’m not 100% sure what made me write this, but it’s been therapeutic of sorts. Having written it, I’m going to ask someone I trust to make it public so that maybe someone reading it in a similar situation will also feel that they have more to give.

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.

littlethings2

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.

little things

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.

270209_reachingout

#100HappyDays – Day Two

Day 2 of 100. A bit daunting looking 98 days ahead, but I have just proved that I have two days’ staying power which for me, is not bad.

So, full of enthusiasm for this new undertaking I spent today looking for things that might make me feel happy. By 2pm I was starting to get a bit worried that I might be dead inside.

I’m not sure that this is how it’s meant to work but by 4pm, I figured if happiness wasn’t going to me, I would have to go to it. So I picked up the phone and booked a yoga class.

When I first moved to Dublin and was finding my feet in a new city, with a new job, new housemates (three lovely, handsome but hopelessly and worryingly undomesticated guys), a new social life, a rather unstable relationship, an equally unstable car complete with two L-plates, yoga was what kept me between the hedges. (Metaphorically speaking, that is. Behind the wheel was another story.) Two hours, two nights a week to shut out everything and simply concentrate on not dislocating something, not falling on my face, not falling asleep during Shavasana and not farting during child’s pose  (it has happened to someone, in nearly every class I have ever attended, but never me) was enough to distract me from all the pressures of the outside world. Total bliss.

In a world that’s getting increasingly frantic, where it’s hard to “disconnect” or get time away from computer and phone screens, there is something very healing about shutting out the noise, concentrating only on your own breathing, using your body, and appreciating how remarkable it is. And for ten minutes at the end, you lie flat on your back with your eyes closed, slow your breathing and relax all of your muscles and take some time out to spend inside your own mind. It’s precious downtime for your brain and for your body, something we don’t always make time to give ourselves. When done, you thank yourself for that time. Which is nice.

I’d fallen out of the yoga habit over the past couple of years. Last week I tried to touch my toes, only to discover that my hamstrings have apparently shrunk by about a foot and I could barely reach my knees.

So tonight I took myself off , right back to the start to a beginner’s class. To my delight I managed conduct myself with relative dignity throughout and emerged relatively unscathed, having only injured myself mildly by dropping a cork block on my toe.

I think that’s a success, and therefore qualifies as today’s moment of happiness.

To illustrated this momentous milestone, here’s a photo of my feet on my yoga mat.

Yoga feet

I told you I was a rubbish photographer.

And I apologise for making you look at my feet.

Tomorrow’s photo will be nicer, I promise. Until then …

#100HappyDays

Happiness is a funny thing, isn’t it? Sometimes it feels like you have to work so much harder for it than other feelings. Like being worried, upset, sad or hungover. They all seem to happen pretty effortlessly. But happiness requires a whole lot of hard work sometimes.

When I think about happiness, I often think about Oscar Wilde and the story of the Nightingale and the Rose:

“Ah, on what little things does happiness depend! I have read all that the wise men have written, and all the secrets of philosophy are mine, yet for want of a red rose is my life made wretched.”

Poor old Oscar – and the poor old nightingale. It’s a great story. And there’s a certain truth in it about never being quite satisfied with what you have (or where you are), and always seeking something else in the name of happiness.

I’ve been feeling a bit on the blue side lately. Nothing serious, but a sustained run of feeling a bit less happy and infinitely less enthusiastic than I’d like. And I’m bored of it. When I go through a grey patch I find that I get to a stage where frankly, I get a bit sick of myself , and it’s at that stage I decide I have to make changes, in order to avoid actually breaking up with myself.  (That’s a whole other post that I won’t bore you with, but suffice to say, there are lists being written and plans being hatched in the background. Which is good.)

Anyway, in an effort to remind myself that Things Are Not All That Bad, and that I have  lots of things to be happy about, I figured that keeping a note of the good things would be a good start.  I’ve seen people all over social media taking part in 100 Happy Days and while my first reaction, if I’m honest was to roll my eyes a bit, I did find that reading them made me smile. So maybe there’s something to it.

It’s been said that taking a few minutes every day to just appreciate what you have is a good habit to get into, and I know that there is evidence that doing so, in turn, makes you happier. The problem is, I’m extremely good at lamenting what I don’t have. However,  looking at the 100 Happy Days website I am extremely excited to see that partaking in this challenge can pretty much produce miracles. From the site:

“People successfully completing the challenge claimed to:

 – Start noticing what makes them happy every day;
 – Be in a better mood every day;
 – Start receiving more compliments from other people;
 – Realize how lucky they are to have the life they have;
 – Become more optimistic;
 – Fall in love during the challenge.”
Well, I never. Why isn’t everyone doing this?!
But, wait. The website also warns against using the challenge to piss other people off:

“It is not a happiness competition or a showing off contest. If you try to please / make others jealous via your pictures – you lose without even starting. Same goes for cheating.”

Well, that’s a bit of a pain, isn’t it? I’d already planned on making you all sick with jealousy with photos of myself standing in the lashing rain at GAA games or covered in muck half way up a mountain in Mayo, but I guess I’ll just have to rein that in, won’t I? And incidentally, if it’s not a competition, how can you cheat in it?  Hmm.

Anyway, skepticism and semantics aside, I’m going to give it a shot. If nothing else, it will be a good exercise in discipline. I’m a crap photographer though, so if you’re expecting anything visually spectacular, you’re in for a disappointment.

 

Here’s my first shot. (Not one of my own, but it doesn’t say you have to take a picture, just that you have to submit it. So thanks to Mick for this one!)
From last Sunday, inMacHale Park,Castlebar, after the Mayo senior football team had just won their fourth Connacht title in a row.There’s a lovely sense of togetherness that comes with being a GAA supporter. While I adore the sport itself, it’s the joy of the shared experience that gets me every time, even when the result doesn’t go your way. But Sunday was one of those days when it did – the sun was shining, the flags were flying and everyone was smiling. In Mayo, we so desperately want to win the big one, that it’s easy to take lovely days like this for granted. And there’s another lesson right there.
10393858_659806970775629_5967054180186378585_n (1)
We’ll all be hoping for a few of these days over the coming months, but this one will keep us smiling for a week at least.
Til next time!