Wednesday 26 October 2016

Like Olivia, we are all avoiding the abyss

Olivia O'Leary talking about her depression was a game-changer, says Brendan O'Connor. She even mentioned drink

Brendan O'Conno

Published 08/05/2016 | 02:30

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan

Olivia O'Leary's intervention in the discussion on mental health in her radio column on RTE's Drivetime last week was a significant one and will perhaps have spoken to people who may have paid scant regard to the conversation up to now. There has been an admirable upsurge in the number of people talking openly about mental-health issues in Ireland in the last few years and, multiplied by the power of social media and the internet, this conversation has certainly changed attitudes towards mental health. This new conversation around mental health has been spearheaded by some would say unlikely figures, like the former rugby player and musician Bressie, broadcaster Eoghan McDermott, who spoke carefully about his own issues with self-harming, and Conor Cusack, one of a number of GAA players to speak out about emotional fragility in recent years.

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To say the stigma around mental illness is gone would be overstating it. You're still going to be reluctant to tell your boss you need time off because you're depressed. You're still not going to admit on a first date that you have a history of mental illness. But there is more of a likelihood now that if a guy on a football team in some parish down the country is having emotional problems or mental-health issues, he is going to tell his teammates. And, more importantly, there is a likelihood that his teammates are going to respond in a helpful and non-judgmental way.

What Bressie and Co and all who followed them on social media and on the airwaves have done is the start of a process. And the aim of stage one of the process was to make it OK to talk about mental health issues. To make it, in the words of Jim Breen and the Cycle again Suicide movement, "OK not to be OK". It was a valuable step in a country that has clung to secrets and lies, where many of our mental-health problems actually stem from the fact that we don't talk, that we repress so much, within families and society in general. In a country where men were silent, getting them to talk was a valuable start of something.

Olivia O'Leary's intervention is another step. And it is one that will speak to a different constituency. Like many of the other public figures who have come out about their experiences of depression, O'Leary is not an obvious candidate. She is someone who we imagine is full of confidence and always was, a formidable woman who is comfortable in the public gaze. She is self-assured and carries a certain authority. She is not someone that we imagine doubts herself. And we associate depression with doubting yourself, with a lack of sure-footedness.

But the importance of O'Leary's coming out is a generational thing.

O'Leary was in her 20s when she experienced what she called the hell and the isolation of depression. Isolation is a critical word there. Depression is not loneliness but it can be lonely, because it can cause us to cut ourselves off. And while other people are actually probably what we most need when depressed, we stay away from them. And the more we do, the worse it gets. It's a vicious cycle.

O'Leary remembers a full year when she didn't care if she got up in the morning. She wouldn't get off the train at the right stop because she couldn't motivate herself to get out of the seat. She spent a lot of time alone in her room. She spoke to Sean O'Rourke the next day about "that feeling of not being able to raise a hand to get to the phone, that feeling of lying there doing nothing because you couldn't think of any way of getting out of it". It was typically understated. It gave a subtle dig to those who would tell a depressed person to snap out of it but, mainly, O'Leary portrayed the banality of the evil that is depression. It's often not dramatic. It's often just flatness, inertia, isolation, paralysis, not seeing the point in going anywhere or doing anything. Not having a narrative for yourself. Just dull bleakness.

But while it happened when she was in her 20s, O'Leary is talking about it now, in her 60s. And that's important.

There are a lot of people, women particularly, who will have seen the likes of Bressie talking about mental health and they will have vaguely thought he seems like a fine lad and whatnot. But fundamentally they will have thought: "It's all very different now. Aren't the young crowd odd all the same, talking about that?" They will not have identified with it.

A lot of these women will be people who suffer from some form of depression at times, but they will never have put a name on it. They will have just accepted it as part of their make-up, as one of their many moods. They would think it indulgent to call it depression and to seek help. They just kind of put up with it and get on with it. Depressed, for them, is someone who is suffering from the nerves, who has to go to hospital.

It will have been incredibly important for those women to see O'Leary, one of them, a very smart one of them at that, put this name, this label, on that mood. It will have been important for them to see that this is not just part of life's cycle, it is an aberration, an illness, and that you don't have to be like that. You can get help. O'Leary did something else very important, too. She linked her depression to drinking. This is not something people generally talk about because it can seem like victim-blaming. But the reality is that a lot of depression in Ireland is linked to drink, and a lot of Irish people will experience bouts of low-level depression, or possibly higher-level depression, because of drink.

It's complex, isn't it? In Ireland, we can tend to self-medicate with drink. We use it to mask shyness, social anxiety, discomfort, boredom, to push down feelings we don't wish to experience. There are even those who imagine that drink helps with depression. But of course it doesn't. Drink is a depressant, ultimately, and if you have depressive tendencies, you need to be careful about your drinking.

And also, O'Leary spoke to a huge constituency who do not consider themselves to have mental-health problems but who know that they need to look after themselves or they can find themselves getting flat, or tipping into the so-called bad place.

O'Leary is one of those, one of the people who needs to mind herself. She is, she told O'Rourke, "still skating on thin ice, because I never want to go back there again and I guard against it".

So she avoids triggers like "stress, working too hard, heavy drinking, not enough contact with family or friends, no exercise, no fresh air, no poetry, no listening to the excited bird outside your window, or singing in your choir... or whatever it is that makes you stop and be happy".

O'Leary spoke to many people's struggle last week. The silent majority of people who may never have a major depressive episode, who may ever only have one, who may have the odd period of flatness, the ones who need to mind themselves.

And she reminded us all that mental health is not just about young people, or about those on the extremes of illness. It is the daily struggle that many Irish people have to make to avoid the abyss. And her little list of triggers is as good a manual for avoiding the abyss as you'll find.

Sunday Independent

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