Wednesday 28 September 2016

Positive attitude is the first step to better mental health

It takes courage, strength and support to break the silence on one of our most devastating ills, believes Olivia O'Leary

Olivia O'Leary

Published 08/05/2016 | 02:30

'Politicians are often accused of being self-serving but Robert Troy wasn’t serving himself last week; he was speaking out for those who feel they have no voice. Moments like that could restore your faith in politics.' Photo: Patrick Bolger Photography
'Politicians are often accused of being self-serving but Robert Troy wasn’t serving himself last week; he was speaking out for those who feel they have no voice. Moments like that could restore your faith in politics.' Photo: Patrick Bolger Photography

You know, just when you despair of politicians, they can surprise you. Just when fear - fear of one another, fear of the electorate - is dogging our politics, someone stands up and says something courageous.

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Robert Troy of Fianna Fail decided that the full day debate on Mental Health a week or so ago should mean something. So he revealed his own experience of depression and anxiety to support the argument for better funding for the mental health services.

He said he suffered from anxiety and minor depression which he found crippling and all consuming.

It made the smallest challenge seem like an impossible high jump, he said, that would ultimately destabilise him.

That took courage. Politicians don't like to reveal anything that might make them seem vulnerable.

But it isn't until you have been through the hell and isolation of depression and anxiety that you have any idea of what it's like or what it takes to get over it.

It has happened to so many of us. It happened to me in my twenties. I remember a full year when I didn't care whether I got up in the mornings.

I remember sitting on the train home and missing my stop because I couldn't motivate myself to stand up and get out.

I didn't care where the train was going to take me and where I'd end up.

And I ended up in some strange places. But mostly I ended up alone in my room.

And I was lucky because someone who loved me stepped in fast and got me psychiatric help.

With the right drugs and some therapy, I recovered. And still I'm wary of it. I know it could happen again.

I guard against what were for me the triggers: working too hard, stress, heavy drinking, not enough contact with family and friends, no exercise, no fresh air, no music, no poetry, no listening to the excited bird outside your kitchen window, or singing in your choir, or whatever makes you stop and be happy.

So I try to remember the psychologist Maureen Gaffney's advice: be quite deliberate about thinking positive thoughts, particularly first thing in the morning.

Negative thoughts have almost four or five times the strength of positive ones, so you have to work at not being overwhelmed by negativity.

The problem with depression and anxiety is that when you most need help, you are least able to ask for it. And you become even more isolated.

I was lucky that I was able to go privately to a psychiatrist. God knows what condition I would have been in if I had to wait and wait for an appointment in the public system.

Robert Troy makes the same point: "I can't imagine feeling so low and alone and not being able to access help," he said

Both psychiatrists and children's mental health advocacy groups have complained at the failure of the HSE to fill full-time psychiatric posts in the public system.

People using the services complain at the constant changes in personnel due to so many locums being used.

It is difficult to get timely psychological assessment at primary and secondary school level and access to psychologists is difficult too.

Former Minister of State Kathleen Lynch's recent battle to stop the mental health budget being raided for other health needs is an example of how mental health comes so far down the list of government's priorities. We have yet to see how it figures in the present negotiations on government.

But what's the point in just talking about it, you might ask?

Just talking about it is the point.

The silence that surrounds mental health has ensured that it has remained the Cinderella of the health service.

People have been afraid to talk about it in case they might be refused a job, in case someone would be afraid to marry them or marry into their family. Dirty family secrets were locked away inside the high walls of institutions. Having a mental illness was regarded almost as a moral flaw, not an illness at all.

Attitudes have changed, but because we still don't want to talk about mental illness, we can't argue for it to get the funding it deserves.

Politicians are often accused of being self-serving but Robert Troy wasn't serving himself last week; he was speaking out for those who feel they have no voice.

Moments like that could restore your faith in politics.

Oliva O'Leary's radio column was first broadcast on RTE Radio 1's Drivetime programme on Tuesday, May 3.

Sunday Independent

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