Saturday 21 October 2017

Depression: I went to my GP with back pain - and ended up in a mental hospital

June Shannon was thrown a lifeline when she was suffering from depression. Now she's helping others by spearheading a national radio ad campaign, writes John Costello

'I was cutting myself off, in a lot of ways, from my friends'

When June Shannon was suffering from lower back pain, little did she realise a trip to her doctor would lead to treatment in a mental hospital.

Now, almost seven years later, she is helping to spearhead the My Ripple mental health awareness campaign and hopes her story will help lift the shroud of silence surrounding the nation's psychological health.

"It really struck me out of the blue," says June. "I didn't have any sign or obvious signals. In hindsight, I was having panic attacks but I never realised what they were. I had lost three stone and wasn't eating or sleeping properly."

But it was the deep pain in her lower back that finally led the successful Dublin-born medical journalist to seek help.

"I had presumed I was physically ill," she says. "But when the doctors were investigating my back pain, they told me there was a link between physical pain symptoms and depression. It was then I realised I was depressed and suffering from anxiety. Shortly afterwards my doctor suggested a spell at a mental hospital."

While hearing such words would send most people into a panic, June was happy she was finally going to get the help she needed.

"I was completely relieved, to be honest," she says. "I was totally exhausted and it finally meant that someone was going to help me. I was lucky that my partner and my family and friends provided me with great support."

While June was open to family and friends about her condition, it is far from the norm.

In fact, even though research has highlighted that one in four of us will suffer from mental health issues at some point, 50pc say they would not want others to know, according to research by See Change, the National Mental Health Stigma Reduction Partnership.

"I can't remember much about my time in the hospital," says June, "but I always had visitors coming in and their support was vital. People need to understand you can recover from it."

However, research shows only one in five strongly agree that 'the majority of people with mental health problems recover,' according to research by See Change.

The mental health charity hopes its My Ripple campaign will help enlighten people. Its autumn launch began this week and featured 22 people from every walk of Irish life who hope their experiences, revealed in radio adverts, will change attitudes about mental health problems.

Glenroe actress Mary McEvoy, who suffers from depression, is adding her voice to the campaign.

"I have no shame about my condition at all," she says. "I can work perfectly well through it but my challenge has been convincing other people I can work perfectly well through it. I just want to encourage people to talk, talk, talk!"

John Buckley, a 25-year-old university graduate from Wicklow, believes being able to open up was key to his recovery.

"I was cutting myself off, in a lot of ways, from my friends," he says. "I was really lacking self-esteem. I kept trying to convince myself I was just going through a 'bad patch'."

Like with so many other sufferers, the associated stigma meant John did not know where to turn for help.

"I didn't want to open up to anyone because I was afraid of what people would think or that they might push me away," he says. "I was thinking in my head at the time, 'You should man up; you shouldn't be feeling in such a dark place because you're a man and you should just get on with it'.

"But the epiphany for me was building up the courage to talk to a friend. It felt like a weight off my shoulder.

"Opening up to people was the catalyst to helping me rediscover my positivity."

While financial pressures and unemployment have caused a rapid growth in those suffering from mental health issues, according to Grow, the mental health awareness group, for others the seeds of mental illness were sown a long time ago.

"I suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which has been traced back to my childhood," says Hazel Larkin from Kildare, who suffered depression after being sexually abused as a child.

"My first memory of being abused was when I was just three years of age. Growing up I had a lot of suicidal thoughts, and in my 20s my self-image was very poor. I suffered with very low self-esteem. I was never diagnosed with a chemical imbalance so I don't have something that can be treated with a pill."

However, through recognition of her condition and counselling, Hazel has been able to gain control over her symptoms.

"Luckily I have strong support around me," she says. "But not everyone is so lucky. When I was at my lowest point, I did find that there was very little help out there. Hopefully, the My Ripple campaign will change that."

With the latest figures showing there were 525 deaths by suicide last year (compared to 186 people killed on our roads), the My Ripple campaign hopes to radically change the way we talk about our mental health.

"Despite how many people are suffering, most feel isolated," says John.

"I was lucky that I started talking to a few friends about what was going on for me. It was the best thing I could have done because that's the most important thing.

"I mean, I think that's the thing that saves lives -- people being open to it."

This is an opinion shared by all those involved in the campaign.

"The bottom line is the more people who speak out, the more people will talk about mental illness," says Hazel. "And that can only be a good thing."

Irish Independent

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