‘That split second decision will affect so many people. Don’t do it’

See Change’s Green Ribbons aim to assure people that help is available

James O’Connor from Tullamore, Co Offaly. “I regret what I did that day and I am sorry to all the people my actions affected. If I could change it I would. I was only 19 and to me the world had ended. Photograph: James Flynn/APX

James O’Connor from Tullamore, Co Offaly. “I regret what I did that day and I am sorry to all the people my actions affected. If I could change it I would. I was only 19 and to me the world had ended. Photograph: James Flynn/APX

 

If James O’Connor had succeeded in his very serious attempt to end his own life over 15 years ago, there are so many things he would never have achieved. He would never have met his partner Lisa, who he loves with all his heart. He would never have seen the world, met all his nephews and nieces and all the many people he has met since that bleak period of his life.

He would never have gone to college, grown his own successful business, become involved in charity work and contributed to society. And the deeply private Offaly man would never have become an ambassador for Ireland’s mental health stigma reduction organisation See Change and shared his story with the world in an effort to help other people, young men in particular, to see that “there is no problem so great that there cannot be a solution found for it”.

“Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. It’s like throwing a stone into water – the ripples keep going. It affects so many people. No matter what road you have travelled, someone has always travelled it before you. There is always someone willing to help if you just ask,” he says.

Now aged 37, O’Connor was working for himself by the age of 19 with a number of staff in his employ. His partner was expecting a baby and their relationship was going well. He was under immense pressure (which he kept to himself) working around the clock and trying to pay wages and bills, while some of his own customers were slow to pay him.

Then on February 19th, 1999, came the devastating phone call from his partner. With just days to go until her due date, their baby had stopped kicking. The couple went to the doctor who told them it was normal. Despite his assurances, they went to Mullingar Hospital but they were too late. Their baby had died.

“It would be two more days before I met my little angel, Leah Victoria. She was a beautiful little girl. In these situations, the man has to be strong, and I was. I will never forget those few days, I held her for hours on end, and her little white coffin... f**k me! A part of me died with her that never came back and I don’t think it ever will.”

See Change is Ireland’s national stigma-reduction programme. In May, its fourth annual Green Ribbon campaign will get Ireland talking about mental health.
See Change is Ireland’s national stigma-reduction programme. In May, its fourth annual Green Ribbon campaign will get Ireland talking about mental health.

Feelings buried

O’Connor went back to work and buried his feelings. As his relationship with his partner began to break down, he worked harder and longer than ever. Then one day, he just snapped. He went into the woods behind his shop where he tried, and almost succeeded, in killing himself.

He was miraculously found on time and two of his workmates and a GP worked on him until the ambulance arrived. He was brought back to life but ended up on life support with a very poor prognosis. His family were warned that there was a risk of brain injury due to the lack of oxygen.

Fortunately, the tests showed his brain had not been damaged but, on his release from hospital, instead of going home, he was admitted to the local “mental hospital” where he ended up in a padded room under high observation and on so much medication that he “really didn’t know who I was”.

While it wasn’t a pleasant experience, he realised afterwards that he needed to be there. People were very good to him and his family at this time, and when he eventually got out of hospital, he went straight back to work. He had to continue psychiatric and psychological treatment for a couple of years and was institutionalised on one other occasion after a second breakdown, but he survived.

“It’s been 15 years since my last instance, something I am proud of. I have learned to live with my demons and live well. If those people had not saved me I would never have done so many things,” he says.

The recession was tough on O’Connor, but he came out the other side and his commercial fit-out contracting business is thriving. In the same way that so many people find a release from exercise, he gets a release from going to work every day.

“Going to work is the single biggest thing that helps me. I love my job. I find it rewarding, it occupies my mind and helps me stop feeling anxious. I achieve good results in my work which makes me feel positive.”

Sharing stories

As a well-regarded member of the industry he works in, O’Connor was concerned that going public with his experience might affect his business and it wasn’t until after two young men he knew well took their own lives within a couple of weeks of each other that he found the “guts” to share his story. He realised that they were within his reach and he could possibly have helped them.

“’Yes, I have experienced stigma, however, when I publicly shared my story, the response was overwhelmingly positive from people from all walks of life, many of whom shared their stories with me and had never told anyone else about their struggles before, especially people from the business community.”

O’Connor can empathise with young people who can feel the world is going to end over the simplest of things and, in his role as See Change ambassador, he talks to adolescents about the importance of asking for help instead of “shoving their feelings under the carpet”.

“I regret what I did that day and I am sorry to all the people my actions affected. If I could change it I would. I was only 19 and to me the world had ended. To all the young people out there, that split-second decision will affect so many people. Don’t do it. Pick up the phone. Reach out. There is always someone to help,” he advises.

Established in 2010, See Change is Ireland’s national stigma-reduction programme, working to change minds about mental health problems. In May 2017, See Change and its 90 partner organisations will roll out the fourth annual Green Ribbon campaign to get Ireland talking about mental health.

More than 500,000 green ribbons will be distributed nationwide free of charge in conjunction with hundreds of local and national events. This May, the ask from See Change is simple – wear the Green Ribbon and show your support for ending the silence around mental health problems. You can order free Green Ribbons for your community or workplace at greenribbon.ie.

If you or somebody you know is in mental distress:

- Contact the Samaritans free on 116 123 for round-the-clock support.

- Contact your local GP, a family member or friend.

- Visit yourmentalhealth.ie for nationwide listings of support services.

TIPS FROM SEE CHANGE ON HOW TO HELP SOMEBODY STRUGGLING WITH THEIR MENTAL HEALTH

You don’t need to be an expert to start talking about mental health or have all the answers. Sometimes the most helpful thing you can do is to let someone know that you are there for them and simply listen.

1. Talk, but listen too: simply being there will mean a lot.

2. Take your lead from the person: as a first step, ask them how best you can help.

3. Avoid the cliches: phrases like “Cheer up”, “I’m sure it’ll pass” and “Pull yourself together” definitely won’t help. Being open-minded, non-judgmental and listening will.

4 . Keep in touch: there are lots of small ways of showing support. Send a text or just ask someone how they are doing.

5. Don’t just talk about mental health: just be yourself, chat about everyday things as well.

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