Monday 26 September 2016

It's time to talk - Rick Rossiter hopes the Green Ribbon campaign will tackle the mental health taboo

Rick Rossiter has experienced first-hand the stigma attached to mental health. He tells Áilín Quinlan how he hopes the Green Ribbon campaign will help break the taboo

Published 17/05/2016 | 02:30

Rick Rossiter, as ambassador for See Change, is talking openly about his mental health issues. Photo by Kadi Märk.
Rick Rossiter, as ambassador for See Change, is talking openly about his mental health issues. Photo by Kadi Märk.

It's good to talk - and this Friday has been designated as the day to do it.

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May 20 is National Time to Talk Day as part of a special nationwide campaign to reduce the stigma around mental health in this country.

Because there is stigma around mental health - quite a lot of it in fact, as Rick Rossiter, who has suffered from depression most of his life, knows all too well.

"We disassociate when it comes to mental health," says Rick (45), now a high-profile ambassador for See Change, Ireland's national stigma reduction programme.

"We'll talk about physical health but as soon as an issue to do with mental health arises, the walls go up and people turn away."

The group, which was established in 2010, works with more than 90 organisations to create a community-driven social movement to reduce the stigma and discrimination associated with mental health problems.

Throughout this month, See Change and partners are rolling out the fourth annual Green Ribbon campaign to get Ireland talking about mental health.

As part of the campaign, which uses the hashtag #TimetoTalk, 500,000 green ribbons will be distributed nationwide in conjunction with hundreds of local and national events. The ask is simple - wear the Green Ribbon and show your support for ending the silence around mental health problems. Take two ribbons, and start a conversation with someone about mental health, because, as See Change says, it really is Time to Talk.

All the while the group's 60 ambassadors, all people with experience of mental health problems, will be sharing their true life stories to spark a national conversation around mental health.

Rick Rossiter is one of those prepared to stand up and talk openly about the mental health issues which have characterised his life.

His first attempted suicide at the age of 15 - he jumped off a 69-storey building in Newfoundland, where he was born and raised - left him with a broken back and legs, and severe back problems which affect him to this day.

In subsequent years, Rick attempted to end his life in a number of ways. Yet, despite the clearly serious mental health problems which dogged this young man from age 12, and a life punctuated by hospital stays, he was not diagnosed with bipolar depression until the age of 26.

As a teenager, Rick, who is now based in Celbridge Co Kildare and who has lived in Ireland for 20 years, says nobody ever actually asked him why he'd attempted suicide. Instead they ran away from it, he believes.

"I have felt and seen stigma since my first suicide attempt at 15.

"I lived in a small town so news of it travelled fast. I left home at 16 because I couldn't live there anymore and went to the city on my own.

"I have seen ignorance and stigma within the mental health service of both Canada and Ireland. I've seen people treat me differently after I told them of my life. I've also seen people treat me no different than before."

And yet, despite the breakdowns, the suicide attempts, the terrible pain and darkness he has experienced - not to mention the appalling lack of understanding and compassion he so often encountered in his search for help - Rick says he wouldn't change a thing.

That's because his ordeals have brought him a willingness to help others. "It's not that people are mean, it's that when mental health issues come up they don't know how to communicate about it," he explains. "We're simply too afraid to say the wrong thing. We have avoided the conversation about mental health for so long we don't know how to have it. That's what See Change is all about.

"My goal in life is now life, to live a better and a more meaningful one, for me and those around me, my family, my friends."

The important messages of National Time to Talk Day, Rick believes, are firstly that mental health issues affect many people, regardless of age, sex, nationality, sexual orientation or personal beliefs, and also that people with problems should not feel the need to hide something, which he points out "is more normal than most people would care to admit".

Looking back, he says, he was only about 12 or 13 when he started to feel isolated and depressed. Although he knew his adoptive parents loved him, he felt "detached" from the family. Counselling didn't help - it was assumed his problems came from knowing he was adopted, and if he knew who his birth parents were, things would settle down.

However, although he did find out who they were - his adoptive mother, it emerged, was actually his aunt - the debilitating feelings of loss didn't go away.

That first suicide attempt at age 15 left him in hospital for three months with a broken back and legs, but, he recalls "never did anyone ask me why I did it".

"Everyone backed away from the whole thought of it," Rick says. "It was the physical side that was treated; I never saw any mental health professional, let alone a psychiatrist."

At 17, he cut his wrists and was stitched up in hospital, but once again, he was released without any mental health-orientated intervention.

Shortly before his 18th birthday Rick took an overdose and went into a coma for three months. Again, no counselling. "After that," he recalls, "I put up a mask and pretended everything was fine."

He married his Irish-born wife Annmarie just before his 20th birthday. "She knew very little about my background. I was hiding it well," he recalls.

Things were fine until the young couple moved to Ireland with their first child in 1997, as Annmarie was feeling homesick - six months after they returned, Rick, then 26, had a very serious breakdown.

Shortly afterwards he was diagnosed with bipolar depression and given medication, which helped, and later he was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.

In 2001, however, he stopped taking the medication. Four years later he experienced another major breakdown. He was admitted to hospital on a number of occasions and attempted suicide again in 2007 before spending a year in a mental health facility.

A one-year course in Art and Three Dimensional Design at Ballyfermot College gave him back his energy and confidence - he became student president.

However, he was admitted to hospital in 2008 for back problems, and, currently awaiting a second back operation, he is acting as an ambassador for See Change.

"I got involved with See Change about 18 months ago. I became an ambassador and have made presentations and represented the group on a number of occasions," he says, quipping that when he looks back, he now sees that he "fell through every crack I could find".

People are wary of mental illness, he says. They see a person who has mental health problems as a 'wildcard', somebody who might be dangerous - and this needs to change. "If you have cancer, you get help, and will find other people very willing to help you but if you say you're bipolar and can't get out of bed, you'll not even get a phone call.

"I was in hospital for mental health issues dozens of times and in all of that time the only person who contacted me regularly was my wife, Annmarie. However, when I was in hospital with back problems I was getting texts and well wishes."

* For more information: visit seechange.ie or greenribbon.ie or on Facebook and Twitter

* Other useful contact details: Samaritans on 116 123 for round-the-clock support or visit samaritans.org

÷ Visit yourmentalhealth.ie for listings of support services

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