How do Irish families deal with mental distress?
Family support is vital in cases of depression but loved ones need to protect their own mental health
Jill McMahon and with her mother Zita: They both believe that being as open and upfront about Jill’s depression as they would be if it was a physical illness not only helps Jill in her recovery but can also contribute to the destigmatising of mental health issues. Main Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
When Zita McMahon heard that the eldest of her four children had been diagnosed with depression after a breakdown last March, her first reaction was that she wished it was anything but that.
“If she had diabetes or asthma I would have said, ‘Oh well, that’s a shame but she can live a normal life with any of those.’ So I had a quick talk with myself and said, ‘This is an illness and you are going to have to deal with it, as if it was diabetes or asthma.’”
It is an attitude that has shaped the approach ever since of both Zita and her daughter, Jill (22), to the condition. They believe that being as open and upfront about it as they would be if it was a physical illness not only helps Jill in her recovery but can also contribute to the destigmatising of mental health issues.
In many ways the diagnosis came as a relief: Jill no longer thought she was going mad and Zita, a teacher, was able to acknowledge the problem she had known “deep down” was affecting her daughter.
Likewise, Jill’s sister, who is close in age, had sensed something wasn’t right and she was told straight away.
While early discussions on the illness were conducted out of earshot of Jill’s younger brothers, aged 15 and 16, Zita soon saw they needed to be in on it as well.
“I just told them straight: ‘She has depression, there will be medication that will help her. It will take a while to sort out her doses and in the meantime we will just be patient and understanding with her.’”
When they asked what they could do to help, Zita replied: “Well, she responds well to hugs.”
A few days later, sitting around the dinner table at home in Co Clare, one of the brothers turned to his sister and said: “Well Jill, how was the depression today?”
The matter-of-factness, putting it out there in the open just as if she had a head cold, was exactly what Jill needed.
“It made me laugh and feel better,” Jill recalls. She knew depression was new to everybody in the family but was reassured by the sense that they would get through it together.
Some of Zita’s friends thought she shouldn’t be going around talking about it, as it might backfire on Jill when, say, looking for a job.
“I found that interesting but it didn’t put me off,” says Zita. Jill found a similar mixed response among friends, particularly when she started to write about it in her blog, salessmilesandstyles.blogspot.ie.
Overall, she says she has had an “unbelievable” reaction to the blog and some friends were able to open up to her about how they had been going through something similar.
“If this helps just one person, we will feel we are doing something right,” says Jill.
On the face of it everything was going extremely well for Jill six months ago. She had graduated with a degree in journalism and Irish from Dublin City University, went straight into a job at the university’s Irish department, had a lovely place to live and plenty of friends around. Yet, she felt she was not coping well with “adult life”.
“I knew there was something wrong – it was a kind of mist.” She was very tired, couldn’t concentrate, felt breathless and anxious and didn’t know why.
“I was trying not to wallow in it – walking an hour to work every day and trying to snap out of it.” She was cranky with housemates and cleaned manically, “trying to control my surroundings because I could not control my own head”.
However, she thinks it came as a shock to people when she did have a breakdown. “I cried for three hours non-stop one night.”
There was no trigger and she had no idea why she felt so sad. “I had an impending sense of something bad going to happen.”
A cousin helped Jill get home, where she felt safer back with the family and was able to go to see her old GP who diagnosed depression straight away.
After about two weeks she was able to return to work in Dublin and has recently started studying for a Masters in digital humanities and culture. Now if she has a down day, she texts Zita just to let her know, on the basis of a problem shared.