My Health Experience: We need to talk

If you have a physical illness, you go to the doctor, but mental health issues still give rise to stigma

‘It’s not easy to pinpoint, emotionally or chronologically, exactly when I started having symptoms of depression. That is part of the complication of the condition. Looking back, I suppose it was ever-present through my schooldays, and more pronounced in secondary school. It was mentioned when I was 15; isolation was certainly a factor, as were negative thoughts, thoughts of self-harm, bouts of anger, fatigue and a feeling of overwhelming emptiness.

It was and is always there but I think it is safe to say that it ran at a low ember and flared periodically.

In my youth, I didn’t cope; I hid and became isolated. I was lucky that at 16 I had one good friend, but that was it. And it wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I accepted the diagnosis and began to deal with it.

I had an episode, when I was 28, in which I physically stopped at a Dart station in Dublin. I was crossing a bridge and suddenly I could not move. Then I decided that something was medically wrong with me. I went home to Jen, who is now my wife, and told her what had happened.


Then I went to see a great doctor in Dún Laoghaire, where I was living at the time, and he mentioned depression.

It was only then that I recalled it being talked about previously.

Initially, the doctor prescribed medication but, luckily and surprisingly, he was familiar with mental health issues, so he also suggested therapy and other supports.

Medication can take a long time to get the right balance and dosage and can sometimes take up to six months to work. So I was lucky that I felt the meds kick in after about six weeks.

But the diagnosis itself was key to me as it explained so much and I launched into reading about the condition, seeking information, looking at the Aware website and seeing what other supports were there. The acknowledgement of my depression helped as much as the stabilising medication.

Off meds
Being aware of my condition and talking about it has been so beneficial. So much so that I have been off meds for about four years now and I don't need to attend the support groups any more as I am stronger than ever. While the depression is ever present at a low ebb, my coping tools, my awareness of it and my relationship with it have evolved to the level where it no longer controls me and I can live quite happily with it and feel much more solid as a person now.

This is why I think it is so important to talk about depression. It is still very much the hidden illness. If someone has a physical health condition, it is noticeable and if someone has an intellectual difficulty, it is usually obvious.

And if someone has a more pronounced mental health issue, the casual observer will know that something is different after some time of interaction.

With depression, however, we learn to mask our feelings with false smiles and facades, so only someone very close will know if a depressive is suffering. This makes it not only hidden, but concealed.

Depression is an illness, a condition no different from asthma, and something that can be managed, But the fear of stigma, and how one will be perceived if they say they suffer from depression, make it difficult to talk about.

If we normalise it, make it common and remove the fear, it makes it a lot easier for people who are suffering to speak out and get help. There were 524 known suicides in Ireland in 2011, and this number is increasing.

And while not all of these people may have been suffering from mental health issues, it is reasonable to assume that they were severely depressed to arrive at that decision. It is as simple as this: if we can talk about mental health issues more, we can save lives.

Just talk
My advice to anyone who thinks they may have depression is also simple. They just need to talk to someone. Accept that this is a common thing, and talk: there are anonymous numbers for groups such as Aware, the Samaritans and Pieta House; and GPs are confidential.

While you may feel alone, you are not. Also, when you feel better, that is the time to seek further help from support groups.

If you have the flu, you see a doctor. Mental health is no different. We need to apply the same criteria to mental health as we do to our physical wellbeing.

Aware is currently running a campaign, 'It's Time to Talk about Mental Health', to work at removing the stigma attached to mental health issues.
See, call 1890 303 302 or email wecanhelp@aware.e.

In conversation with

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in health, lifestyle, parenting, travel and human interest stories