Hazel Larkin has spent a lot of time trying to figure out a strategy for the bad days when she cannot get out of bed.
A writer, PhD student and mother of two daughters, aged 10 and 12, Hazel battled feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness for 20 years before she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I was sexually abused as a child, so it’s been going on for quite a while. But I manage it better now,” she explains.
It’s why she is well equipped to be a “green ribbon ambassador” this month for See Change, a project devoted to breaking down the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
Coping strategy Over the years, Larkin has developed a strategy for coping with the bad periods. Not beating herself up for the days she feels bad is one coping mechanism; another is being able to reach out for help. She has a template text in her mobile phone that reads: "I need help, can you give me a call?" In the event of a crisis, this would be sent to five people.
“Thankfully, I have never had to use it but if I ever have to, anyone who responds will be telling me they have time to help,” she says.
This is important for Larkin, who says in a crisis you can feel so overwhelmed and worthless that it’s hard to ask for help. “Sometimes you feel other people are so busy with their own lives that you can’t ask.”
Larkin is a single parent and is very honest with her daughters about her problems. Having too much to do can trigger a downward spiral for her, and she has realised that she can ask her children to help when she is overwhelmed.
“They are old enough now to empty the dishwasher or to run a hoover over the floor,” she says.
In the past, she has felt suicidal and once she said goodbye to her children. “I have since told them I would never leave them, and that promise keeps me here on bad days,” she says.
“I don’t mean that I would put that responsibility on them. All I ever wanted was to have a family, and now I have that. I am living for me.”
Larkin is a sociologist, working towards a PhD at the school of nursing and midwifery at Trinity College Dublin, and says she became an ambassador for See Change because she believes it is crucial to start a national conversation about mental health.
Advice Her advice for those who are in pain ranges from being able to identify their own personal triggers to having four or five people they can call on in a crisis.
Those who would like to help should not just talk to people who are having problems, but should listen as well, she says. “People don’t expect you to fix their problems or give them solutions.
Sometimes it helps if you just pull over a chair and sit beside them. You can be honest and say to them, ‘I just don’t know what to say’, the way you might to someone at a funeral.”
Needless to say, she doesn’t recommend anyone tell a friend to snap out of it.
“Telling someone to cheer up because it’s the weekend does not make sense if the weekend is the time they feel most isolated,” she says.
“We all have things that we try during a crisis, but a long soak in a lavender bath will not do it every time.”
See Change, speak out: in waiting rooms, boardrooms and chatrooms John Saunders wants to get people talking about mental health or, more specifically, mental ill health.
For the past few weeks, the chairman of the Mental Health Commission has been noting thousands of green ribbons on lapels around the country with approval, as 90 organisations, ranging from Irish Rail to the Irish Farmers' Association, do their bit to highlight the issue.
Saunders is a director of the voluntary mental health organisation Shine, which rolled out See Change, a project designed to reduce the stigma and discrimination associated with mental health problems that has distributed 300,000 green ribbons.
"It's the same principle as the pink ribbons which are associated with cancer, especially breast cancer, or the red ribbons that were associated with HIV/Aids," says Saunders.
“People wear ribbons to show solidarity and we want them to wear green ribbons in that spirit.”
He says this gesture could mean a lot to people who struggle with mental ill health , as by wearing a ribbon people are signalling that they are happy to talk about an issue that affects many people but is still taboo in some quarters.
"It all helps to reduce the stigma," says Saunders. Experience As part of this year's green ribbon campaign, 50 ambassadors signed up to talk about either their own or a loved one's experience, and 90 partner organisations, ranging from the Girl Guides to the Irish Sports Council, are facilitating the effort to get people talking in waiting rooms, boardrooms, chat rooms and tea rooms around the country.
According to the World Health Organisation, one in four people experiences a mental health problem.
Research has shown that 56 per cent of Irish people would not want others to know about their mental ill health, and 28 per cent would delay seeking professional help for fear of others finding out.
"I remember when people would not talk about cancer. They would not even say the word and used expressions such as 'the big C'," says Saunders.
“There was a time when people thought HIV was a plague and something you could pick up from a cup,” he adds.
“When something is no longer taboo, people’s knowledge and attitudes shift dramatically, and that’s what we want to happen with mental health.”