Depression and the Leaving: you can come through it and get back up fighting
Kenneth Browne was a top achiever in school but was affected by depression in Leaving Cert year and didn’t go on to college. He beat the illness and made it to university, and was elected president of the students’ union
“What really pulled me back was the persistence of my family and friends.” Kenneth Browne presents at a first year orientation in the Helix, DCU, last September
It’s almost five years since I sat my Leaving Cert and failed to get a single option on my CAO form. I thought my story might be insightful and somewhat hopeful for those in a similar position.
I’ve always been incredibly competitive. I put a lot of pressure on myself to achieve and I’ve always done well in and outside school. My story really starts when I was 17, a fifth year student in Gorey Community School, fresh faced from the academic coastal road we call TY when the Leaving Cert system hit with a bang.
I was in a good place, worked hard and reached a peak at the end of fifth year when I was named Student of the Year. What a position to be in going into that final year of school we’re bred to believe will define our future path.
Then things began to go rapidly downhill. My moods were constantly changing, with my days becoming darker. I lost interest in sport, music and socialising. My confidence was gone. Every aspect of my life seemed a chore and I wanted to do nothing but stay in bed all day, everyday. I had no energy, no drive and didn’t want to talk to anyone.
There were days I would come home from school, go straight to my room and burst into tears for no reason. My mind was falling apart and I was a nightmare to live with. In January 2010 my parents forced me to see my GP and I was diagnosed with severe depression.
I had no idea what depression entailed because there was no awareness [when I was] growing up. My concentration was non-existent. I was sent to school for social interaction, and because there was no one at home to look after me during the day. I went to class, put my head on the desk and slept the time away. To the outsider I had become one of the “wasters” we’ve all shared a classroom with. I didn’t engage or participate and didn’t do any study or homework. I didn’t want to be here anymore. I had no feelings for anything. Suicide was a recurring thought, which thankfully I never acted on, but I was in a mindset where I wasn’t afraid to die.
I was placed on medication (Effexor and Lexapro, but I can’t remember in which order), which initially had little effect. I was driven around from one counsellor to another, a psychotherapist and back to the GP again. As far as I was concerned, I might as well have been a character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
There are many ways to deal with mental illness, counselling being a main one. Everyone is different, but for me this was one of the most frustrating exercises I had to take part in. Each session was an open-ended question after question, no matter what I had just said: “How do you feel about that?”, “And how does that make you feel?”. Not for me, thanks.
What really pulled me back over time was the persistence of my family and friends to keep me engaged, active and physically dragging me from bed to get out of the house. This is an experience no one can tackle alone and support systems are vital.
I took the Leaving Cert in June despite having the worst academic year of my life. I didn’t care if I passed or failed, didn’t open a book the night before; I just went in and wrote what I knew. My work over the previous years stood to me: some things went surprisingly well, and some didn’t. I blanked on the Irish paper and walked out with only my student number on the page. Obviously I failed, which was ironic as I had spent the four previous summers in the Gaeltacht i ngrá leis an teanga. The results came out and I had scraped 390 points from somewhere, which was very respectable, but nowhere near what I would originally have aimed for. I didn’t get any course I had thrown onto the CAO form and was left stranded in Wexford while all my friends moved on.
I was lucky to get a job in SuperValu for the year, which gave me a routine and helped on my road to recovery. I went in, worked, went home and forgot about it until the next day. Having a routine is incredibly important and keeps the mind occupied. The absence of pressure from study and exams was incredibly refreshing.
The natural progression is to go from school to college in the space of a summer, but there are plenty who go straight into working or claiming social welfare. This doesn’t mean you’ve missed the boat and have to stay there. There are financial supports and alternative routes into every degree; it may just take longer to get there. Education is a right, not a privilege for those who can afford it.
After several months I was coming back to myself, but more, I was ready to get out and join my friends living the city life. My ambitions extended far beyond the deli.
Going against everything we’re told in school, I reapplied to the CAO with a single course on the form – communication studies at DCU. I didn’t have the points and didn’t have a back-up, but I had no interest in settling for something that wasn’t first choice. It’s important to do what you have a passion for and not follow a career because of the salary, the holidays or because it’s the family business you’re pressured into. If you’re not in love with your course or future work then no money or days off will make you happy – and I’ve seen this first hand with friends who made the wrong decisions.
I was always creative, so I chose the ever-uncertain media path. I was accepted through a back door route called Dare (Disability Access Route to Education), which allows for extra points if your exams were affected by illness. Little did I know how substantial this lifeline would be.
I was slowly coming off the meds and could feel a change in myself. I was excited about the adventure ahead but had no idea what was in store. I got my confidence back, but greater than I’d known before. I felt stronger, more in tune with my mind and I knew I was never going to let anything break me down again.
On my very first day in DCU, I told myself, “I’ve lost two years of productivity in life that I can’t get back, but let’s see how much I can pack into the next three.”
I determined to get back on top, competing for everything and achieving in everything I took on. I started with election as class rep for 100 communications students. I became a “yes man”. I volunteered for and threw myself into every single aspect of university life that came my way. DCU presented lots of opportunity and challenged and stimulated my mind again. On November 14th, 2011, I took my last dose of medication and left the illness far behind.
At the end of first year, out of 2,000 new students I was awarded “Most Promising Fresher” at the DCU Society Awards and was elected humanities convenor – a faculty representative for more than 2,000 students between class reps, staff and the student union executive. The next year I was elected clubs officer for the 40-plus DCU clubs and sat on the Club Life Committee.
In final year, I was elected president of DCU students’ union, spokesperson for the 12,000-plus students at the university. I had well and truly conquered my Everest and was mentally fitter than ever. In May 2015, I received a civic honour from my home town of Gorey for my achievements.
I’ve always been open about my illness and passionate about creating awareness for those who find themselves in the same shoes. Last November, I attended an international students’ union conference in Vermont where the keynote speaker was Captain Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips), who spoke about his journey and leadership. I addressed the event about Tackling Mental Health Issues in Dublin City University. Quite a journey for the broken teen I was four years before.
This year, DCU students’ union was awarded the amber flag for mental health awareness on campus, thanks to the SU’s welfare officer Eve Kerton and her team.
Bad days Don’t get me wrong, I still have bad days. But it’s about recognising when those bad days are becoming too frequent and acting accordingly to make sure I don’t let my mental health deteriorate. I’ve learned a huge amount about the mind and how to channel energy into ambition. I’m confident I’ll never fall into that hole again and can overcome any obstacle in my way. My journey in DCU is over and I’m moving to Chicago this summer on a graduate visa. Something tells me things are going to work out just fine.
My main message from this is for those who are going through something similar, post-Leaving Cert or in university exams. These are without doubt the most stressful and pressurised situations you will have to face. It may seem if you fail or don’t get the grade or points you want, then it’s game over, you’ve lost, you’re out. But there are many alternative routes into every possible course or sector. You may need to repeat a year, take a year out or change course. I took the scenic route to get here but I’m all the better for it.
Dream big, roll with the punches, take the hits, get back up fighting and there’s no limits to what you can achieve.
Coping strategy: ‘It’s all about mental attitude, working, visualising and believing good things will happen’
To those who may be struggling now or will be in the future: if you find you’re not coping, your first priority should be getting yourself back to full health.
Take a break from school, college or work where possible. It will not go away by itself. Confide in family or a few close friends and seek professional medical help.
Thankfully, there is more awareness today than even six years ago, though we’ve still a long way to go. You’re never alone and though no one will know exactly how you’re feeling, thousands can empathise with the illness.
Although that two-year period was the worst of my life, it’s almost as if I had to sacrifice it to have a richer mindset for the rest of my days.
I’ve taken three things from the experience of depression that I attribute my success to:
– Be fearless
– Be confident
– Be happy
I was once at a point where I wasn’t afraid to die. If I didn’t fear this, why should I fear anything I’m ever faced with? I embraced a “nothing to lose” attitude.
I believe you can achieve absolutely anything you set your mind to. The only barriers in life are our own inhibitions.
If something doesn’t make you happy then stop. Change things, find something you’ve a passion for and run with it. When you find the perfect balance, you’ll realise you’ve unlocked potential you may never have known you had. We all look at situations or others in life and have some degree of envy.
I’ve been called “lucky”, “flukey”, “jammy” , suggesting everything that has happened me has been by chance. Nonsense. It’s all about your mental attitude, working, visualising and believing good things will happen.
Someone has to get that dream job, someone has to cross that finish line first. I believe if you put your mind to it, lose your reservations and be fearless, then that person will be you. Nothing is unattainable.
Kenneth Browne is outgoing president of DCU students’ union