I have had panic attacks: does this mean I had a 'mental health issue'?

THERE HAVE always been two Mary Robinsons

THERE HAVE always been two Mary Robinsons. There’s the public persona: the outspoken campaigner with the cool demeanour and an occasionally bone-crushing handshake.

Then there’s the private Robinson. Before this week, we had only glimpsed this person: in interviews when she talked of her love of Mayo, or in acquaintances’ allusions to a softer side, such as the characterisation by her friend, the poet Eavan Boland, of her as a “dreamer”.

An extract published at the weekend from her new memoir reveals that during her first year as the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, a chasm opened up between the two personas. In public, she remained forthright and fearless. Privately, she was floundering.

Robinson reveals that she missed the company of her husband when she travelled. She lost her appetite, had trouble sleeping, and began missing family mealtimes. She started taking sleeping pills. It came to a head when her brother, Ollie, warned her that she was “straying into nervous-breakdown territory and needed to pull [herself] together”.


It’s tempting to welcome this insight into the former President’s private turmoil as a strike against the mental-health taboo. It emerged in Suicide Awareness Week and coincided with the publication of a survey by St Patrick’s University Hospital, which reported that one fifth of people believe those suffering from mental-health problems are “of below average intelligence”.

“When somebody with that international respect talks about mental-health difficulties, it . . . gives people permission to say ‘yes, I have also suffered from mental-health problems’,” the chief executive of St Patrick’s, Paul Gilligan, said about Robinson on Morning Ireland.

He’s right. If you’re suffering from stress at work, it’s a relief to hear that someone such as Mary Robinson has been there and taken the sleeping pills.

The trouble with the term “mental health issue” isn’t just its faintly Victorian resonance: it’s that – outside the medical profession – the words are often applied to a wide range of conditions. At one end of the spectrum, there are temporary responses to stressful situations, like lack of sleep or mild anxiety; at the other end, there are serious illnesses, and personality and mood disorders.

Perhaps because “mental health” has become such a loaded term, almost one third of the 300 people surveyed by St Patrick’s University Hospital said they would shun a friendship with someone who has a “mental-health issue”.

Possibly, some of those respondents themselves hover somewhere on the mental-health spectrum. I’m one of those lurking in the grey areas, though I have never thought of myself that way. If you asked me if I had ever suffered from a mental-health problem, I would instinctively say no. But under other people’s definitions, I have. For example, I have had panic attacks.

I remember the first one clearly. I was eight and at a cousin’s house, where we were playing one of those sensory-deprivation games children love – I can’t remember much except that it involved a stool and a blindfold. The aim was to disorient you, but in my case, the effect was much more profound.

I felt a frightening sensation wash over me, like falling asleep in a public place and waking up with a start. For the rest of the afternoon, that feeling of having “stepped out” of my own consciousness lingered.

Though it would take me years to recognise the term, that was my first panic attack. The rest came in similar, unpredictable waves. In McDonald’s, aged 11, staring at a strawberry milkshake and wondering how I got there. In art class at 15, gazing out the window at the autumn leaves, and feeling that sickening rush of panic.

Eventually, I told my parents I thought I was going mad; they suggested that panic attacks were a more likely explanation.

Their support helped, as did having a name for it. Over time, I learned to isolate the triggers and developed techniques for talking myself down. But in the end, what helped most was accepting that occasional panic attacks are simply part of who I am.

If we want to normalise so-called mental health issues, and tackle the shame and secrecy surrounding them, we need to start by demystifying them.

I’m not suggesting a blanket ban on the term “mental health issues”: there are very serious conditions that fall under this heading, and rightly so.

But no one should be defined by a mental health issue, whether it’s a temporary problem, or one with the potential to have a serious impact on their life.

Helpfully, Robinson herself uses measured language in her memoir. She describes feeling “exhausted” and “depressed” but doesn’t attempt to medicalise her experience.

Sometimes, what are popularly labelled “mental health issues” are simply by-products of being alive: sane responses, as the Scottish psychiatrist RD Laing might or might not have said, to an insane world.

Don't give up the

day job

MICHELLE OBAMA is the “mom-in-chief”. Ann Romney is the proud stay-at-home mom and cheerleader for a love “so deep only a mother can fathom it”. Sarah Palin was a “mama grizzly”. Spot the trend emerging here? It begs the question: why are bright, powerful and articulate women such as Michelle Obama and Ann Romney so keen to identify themselves first and foremost as mothers? Men don’t seem to suffer from a similar compulsion to out themselves as dads.

Is it because these women know that, if we can imagine them at home, cutting the crusts off their kids’ sandwiches and arguing over how many carrots constitutes a full portion, it somehow neutralises their power and makes them more palatable to the voting public? That might explain why, in her speech at last week’s Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama managed to tell her whole life story without mentioning that she’d had her own career.

It would also explain why the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has been described by an opposition senator as unfit for office because she is “deliberately barren” – as though her choice not to have children is somehow an affront on a par with, say, stealing handbags from old ladies.

As a woman who also happens to be a mother, as opposed to a mother for whom everything else is secondary, I wish we could agree to stop this mythologising of motherhood. It’s not doing any of us any favours.

Ireland's limbo generation

A REPORT this week warned first-time buyers that they face a stark choice: have a house, or a baby. But don’t try to do both at the same time.

After this grim message to consumers from Irish Mortgage Brokers (“Hold off having kids if you want a mortgage . . . Go for the house first”), the Irish Banking Federation denied that its members were discriminating against people with children. And I hope they’re not. But the warning does raise the spectre of a generation for whom major life decisions have to be put on hold, or bypassed altogether, because of the economic crisis.

The New York Times has dubbed the generation just coming of age in the US the “Limbo Generation” – and the way the banks are making Ireland’s twentysomethings bend over backwards to get a loan, that may not be a bad term for our lot either.

Get in touch with your comments and suggestions. Email joconnell@irishtimes.com or tweet @jenoconnell