For Ireland rugby player Hannah Tyrrell, self-harm was a form of punishment, whether for eating badly, not exercising enough or not doing well in an exam or match.
“I had this burning feeling under my skin that I couldn’t shake unless I self-harmed and I couldn’t keep my mind on anything else.”
Tyrrell began self-harming at the age of 12 or 13 when she started secondary school. In her late teens, it became even more serious when she was stuck in a vicious cycle of self-harm while struggling with the eating disorder bulimia.
“My struggles with my mental health made me withdraw a lot from my friends and family. I stopped hanging out with friends outside of school for fear of them noticing my cuts or my eating habits. In terms of my mood, it tended to be pretty erratic. Some days I would be very down and depressed about things, other days I would be normal or I would feel okay about myself.
“My education took a backseat a little bit. I was a perfectionist and a high achiever and wanted to do well in school, but most days my eating disorder and self-harm took priority and I couldn’t give 100 per cent to school.”
Throughout this period, Tyrrell (now 26) was playing under-age inter-county football for Dublin, and while her eating disorder affected her energy levels, sport was her only escape from her mental distress.
“For me, sport and my teammates allowed me to leave behind all the stuff I was going through and just enjoy the couple of hours of peace from the negative thoughts in my head. It gave me a break from the struggles I faced daily and just allowed me to enjoy myself and the sport itself.”
Having managed to hide her problems for a long time, Tyrrell finally began to open up to family and friends in sixth year about what she was going through. It took a few years for her to overcome her mental health problems during which time she saw various counsellors and psychotherapists, and was an inpatient in St Patrick’s hospital.
“The biggest thing in overcoming my illness was to acknowledge it, acknowledge that I needed help and also that the want and desire had to come from me. I had to learn to love myself and believe that I deserved to be happy and to lead a successful life.
“I learned that communication with family and friends was essential in overcoming the struggles I faced daily, and by talking to people it became easier to address these problems.”
Her advice to anybody struggling to overcome mental illness is to reach out and communicate with somebody, anybody. The sense of relief you get just by sharing your thoughts is immense, she says, and there is always someone willing to listen and help.