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.

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Published on Newstalk.ie on Friday 17th May 2013

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.

My 10k adventure – and a thank you

Two months ago, I took a mad notion and decided I’d run 10km for charity.

Okay, I lie. I did no such thing. I decided I’d repeat the efforts of previous years, and sign up for the Women’s Mini-Marathon, do some token training – consisting of running 500m down the road and back while feeling faintly ridiculous – for the week preceding the big event. Then I’d turn up on the day, togged out like a pro. I’d jog a little and feel smugly fit and healthy before starting to wheeze, and would happily succumb to a(n albeit brisk) walking pace around the 2k mark. Then I’d finish triumphantly by jogging across the line at a respectable 1 hour 40 minutes and head to the pub to smugly celebrate my achievement.

This year was different, though.

I work for a large multinational corporation. I’ll openly admit that this is not necessarily the career path I’d have chosen as a young idealist, but it’s worked out well for me. While I work hard, and sometimes excessively long hours, I consider myself pretty lucky that I can work with some great clients who do fantastic work in the social arena. I’m glad that as part of my day job that I get to meet people who inspire me, and I’m grateful that I’m able to play a very small part in helping them achieve their aims more effectively and successfully.

One of the single biggest positives of my job is that as part of our corporate social responsibility programme, I with a small team of others have been able to work closely with the wonderful people at LauraLynn House, Ireland’s first – and only – Hospice for terminally ill children. Social responsibility programmes within big multinationals sometimes get a bad rap among cynics, who suggest they smell a little of tokenism and are simply part of an effort to generate positive PR, but I say, if I can contribute to a cause like LauraLynn House, even to a tiny extent, as part of my day job, then that’s good enough for me.

I’m sure by now that most of you have heard Jane and Brendan McKenna’s tragic story, but if not, you can read it here where you can also find out a little more about the work that the Children’s Sunshine Home and LauraLynn House do.

Three weeks ago, I was confronted with an image on the front of the Irish Independent that stopped me in my tracks. Tiny baby Leo McWade, aged 6 months old, gazing up at his dad with his beautiful big eyes, had been born with an inoperable heart defect. Told he would have very little time, his parents, Catherine and John had brought him home to care for him side by side with his twin sister Molly. I won’t deny that I cried when I read of his dad John’s feeling of panic when, on a particularly awful night, he phoned the hospital desperately looking for help and was told not to bring him in, that there was nothing they could do. I don’t have children, but I can only imagine the how horrifying that feeling of helplessness must have been.

John and Catherine subsequently moved into LauraLynn House with Leo and Molly, where Leo has received specialist care. The twins are now six months old. John, during his interview with the Irish Independent marvels at Leo’s resilience. “Now we have gotten to know this little boy. We can hold him and he looks up at me and he smiles”, he says. They can now tell Leo’s little sister that they did everything they could for him.

I hope John and Catherine don’t mind me telling their story here. But I don’t mind saying that nothing I have ever read has affected me so much. I hope Catherine and John get some more time with their little boy, and when the time comes, I hope sincerely that they’ll get the support they need at such a terrible time.

LauraLynn House is a wonderful facility. In their recently-opened new hospice building, they’ve thought of everything. It’s full of natural light. The bedrooms are decorated so as to make them feel as homely as possible. While every room houses essential medical equipment such as hoists, they are discreetly housed behind doors so as not to serve as a reminder that this is a medical environment. Large recliners beside beds enable tired parents to rest in comfort. Computer screens where staff can access medical records double as interactive screens for children to play games. There are guest rooms, with small kitchens where families can avail of privacy and retain some dignity at that most terrible of times. And in the most poignant of additions, there is a beautiful room called the Butterfly Suite, where children close to death are brought to die with their families around them. Importantly, LauraLynn House is not a sad place, nor is its sister organisation, the Children’s Sunshine Home. Though the facilities between provide care and respite for hundreds of children and parents, they are places of light and laughter.

LauraLynn House receives NO direct government funding. Not a cent. Apart from some funds diverted from the state contributions towards the Children’s Sunshine home, on whose grounds LauraLynn House sits, the hospice relies solely on the goodwill of fundraisers to pay its staff, and maintain its buildings and equipment. Running costs for the Hospice amount to over €2m annually. That’s a lot of money to raise.

When I read baby Leo’s story, I’d already started fundraising. I’d already raised quite a bit, having beaten my original target of €250, which I’d thought ambitious when I set it. But reading this made me more determined than ever. So I started to make a nuisance of myself, and it paid off. I’ve known from years of getting soaked outside churches while shaking buckets and selling raffle tickets at table quizzes, that we as a nation are an incredibly and unerringly generous people. I’ll always remember the old gentleman with no coat and a jumper that had seen better days who, outside a north Dublin church on a freezing cold, rainy night with a shy nod pressed a €50 note into my collection bucket. Once people are asked, they almost always respond with genuine enthusiasm for a good cause. But when times are that bit harder, and money is tight, I’d have understood if people were more reticent. I was prepared for that. But the opposite proved to be the case. In the end, I’ve managed to raise over €1,200 for LauraLynn House, and to say I’m delighted is an understatement.

One of the most amazing elements of my fundraising effort was the response I got from my efforts to promote the cause using social media. Anyone who knows me will know that I’m  an avid fan of twitter. I’ve been using it for about three years, and during that time (once the initial rite-of-passage novelty of celeb-following wore off), I’ve gathered over 1500 followers, and enjoyed thousands of fascinating, bite-size conversations with people from all walks of life on lots of interesting topics. (And politics.) I’ve even had the pleasure of meeting some people who I can now safely say will be friends for life. But despite my already strong conviction that the people you meet on twitter are among the best you’ll ever find, nothing could have prepared me for the response I got there to my fundraising efforts. In total, nearly half amount came from people who follow me on twitter. Astoundingly, a third came from people I’ve never even met. Some even passed my fundraising page on to friends and colleagues who in turn, also contributed.

Just… wow.

So when I togged out last Monday, I felt I owed it to those who donated to put in a bit of effort, over and above my usual laid-back ambling through the route. Work commitments meant training time was minimal, so I approached the day with some apprehension. (By minimal, I mean non-existent.) An old injury didn’t help, but along with a good (and annoyingly, infinitely fitter) friend of mine, I vowed I’d give it socks. (I even bought special socks for the occasion.) The first kilometre was a breeze. I was starting to wonder what the big deal about running was. By 2k, I was getting a wee bit sweaty. At 3k, I was starting to wheeze and feel a bit dizzy. By 5k, parts of me I didn’t know existed were starting to hurt, and I had to slow down for a bit. (By slow down, I mean stagger to the nearest water station and consider catching a bus.) Around the 7k mark I was definitely starting to hallucinate and reminiscent of the Lenten episode of Father Ted where everything appears to Ted to be a giant cigarette, I was having visions of tantalisingly cold pints of liquid. (Swithwicks.) The firemen cheering us on at Donnybrook at the 8km mark bolstered the spirits somewhat, despite being somewhat of a distraction. By 9k, every single part of me, including my eyeballs hurt (and didn’t stop hurting for four days). But I crossed the 10k mark having managed to run a good 90% of the route, and clocked a time of 1hr 18 minutes. Not exactly impressive, but bearing in mind that I absolutely detest running and avoid it at every opportunity, I was pretty damn chuffed with myself. I was so chuffed that I even contemplated running a victory lap around the Green.

So, this post is a thank you. To anyone who made a donation to the cause, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU, from the bottom of my heart. I’m humbled by your generosity towards what is a wonderful cause. LauraLynn House value every cent of the money you donated. But in addition to that, the past few weeks served to remind me that despite all the negativity and cynicism that pervades the news, the papers and our everyday discourse, there is still an intrinsic goodness in us, and a desire within us to help out others less fortunate than ourselves. And it’s for that reminder that I’m even more grateful.

You can read John McWade’s interview with the Irish Independent here.