Friday 9 December 2016

Bressie: 'Support of peers helps change attitudes to mental health'

The power of community, says Niall Breslin, is helping to change attitudes towards mental health. In week one of our Lust for Life series, Bressie explains how training in a group for the race can help build important bonds

Published 12/01/2016 | 02:30

Niall Breslin is taking part in the 'Irish Independent' A Lust for Life run in eight weeks time.
Niall Breslin is taking part in the 'Irish Independent' A Lust for Life run in eight weeks time.

'What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured" - Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage

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The last year of my life has allowed me gain a clarity of thought that for so many years escaped me. Over the recent past I have obtained and refined the knowledge to allow myself deal much more effectively with my own mental and emotional well-being. This was done through careful and evolved focus on self-awareness and the triggers that can accentuate my anxiety levels and low moods.

This was not an easy course of action to implement, and I had to make some difficult decisions, but in order to prioritise my mental health in a real and sustainable manner, I had to enforce the act of 'positive selfishness' to protect myself and bolster and expand my level of resilience.

Before I even attempted to start regaining control in my life, I had to undertake one last thing. I had to take the figurative weight off my shoulders, that for years I carried, because I felt sharing the load would be perceived negatively by society.

I spoke openly and with a liberating rawness to those around me. Friends, colleagues and associates. It wasn't the illness I found so difficult to deal with all these years, it was the constant disguising and concealing of it, the excuses, the secrecy, the misleading pretext of every conversation.

Only after doing this was I able to approach the recovery I coveted with real substance and strategy. Only then did I realise that I was lucky enough to be surrounded in a community of support and empathy, and this became a vehicle that helped guide me on my journey of self discovery and restoration. The realisation that the positive impact peer-to-peer social support had on my own well-being really motivated me to explore if this was the case for other people who may be struggling in silence.

This was one of the fundamental reasons that I developed the concept around my recent two-part documentary Ironmind on RTÉ 2 last November, where we trained four people with their own mental health concerns to complete a half Ironman endurance race by building their mental and physical fitness over the course of six months.

Although they had access to the top clinical and cognitive care, which had a profound impact on their emotional well-being, it was in fact the peer-to-peer, community-like support we all cultivated as a group that had the most defining impact.

We could talk freely and normally among each other - often about quite distressing and upsetting moments in our lives - but the capacity to hold conversations like humans rather than the robots society has nurtured us to be when it comes to our emotions, was rejuvenating and energising.

We started to realise that something we had thought for years was so subjective and affiliated to just ourselves was in fact incredibly common and relatable.

A Lust For Life has recognised the importance of community social support in altering the dynamic and attitude towards the mental health dialogue in this country. If we are truly going to change anything, we have to ignite the communities throughout the country to magnify and show unity in destroying the archaic and suffocating stigma surrounding mental health illness.

I am continuously asked at every talk and presentation that I do, from businesses, schools, universities to community centres, 'What can we do to help those who are struggling?'

The answer is simple. You are not there to fix anything. Many of you are not healthcare professionals, but what we can do is develop a community and environment of total and unquestionable support for those people so they feel that when the time comes for them to get the required help they need, the community is behind them and looking out for them.

Do not tolerate lazy and damaging stereotypical attitudes that often drive vulnerable people right back into their shell.

Every community can become leaders, all it takes is two or three individuals to start the movement and believe me, people will follow.

Last year at our run in the Phoenix Park, communities came from all over the country.

They had taken on the challenge we set them, and walked, ran, and trained together for the few weeks leading up to the event, but more importantly, they talked freely in a group about their emotional well-being which in turn bonded them in a way a million trips to a pub or conversations about football will never do.

Real, honest and meaningful words. And it's these bonds that build real communities.

Who is willing to put their hands up in their communities to sign people up to walk/run with me in the Phoenix Park this March?

It's the power of community and education that will allow us change the negative attitudes towards mental health in this country.

Does your community want to help?

Your 8 week training plan starts here

The race offers a choice of 5K or 10K with the distance being dependent on personal choice or expectations. The training plan will appear week by week and you can start on whatever day suits you best.

Each distance will offer a beginner or intermediate option with the intermediate aimed at those that have already covered the distance and want to improve. Distance and intensity will increase to keep pace with your progress. Don't be tempted to jump ahead too soon but instead be patient with the build up as you have the rest of your life to enjoy the benefits.

The beginner level is aimed at completing the distance and the intermediate plan is aimed at sub 30-minute 5K or sub 60-minute 10K.

* The Irish Independent A Lust For Life 5k/10k Park Run takes place on Saturday March 5 at 10am. Entry is €20 and you can sign up at FITMagazine.ie

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