Depression: 'That was a very lonely place, a very scary place'
Tom Lenihan is using his own experience of depression to help others in a similar situation
Published 15/09/2013 | 05:00
Tom Lenihan is young, intelligent, popular and of good family. As the recently elected president of Trinity College's prestigious student union, he's taking a year out of his studies to work on behalf of his fellow students. At 22 years of age, he's tall and attractive, with – like his late father Brian – a charmingly warm manner.
So why is he sitting across from me trying to explain how it was that his teenage years were spent in misery; so much so that he constantly battled suicide ideation and, in one case, made a very serious attempt to take his own life?
"Mentally," he says, "as a young teen, I just felt very alone. I was ahead of my peers, physically I developed early, and I felt I couldn't relate to people, I had lots of friends but I had a darkness inside that I couldn't understand."
We're sitting in Tom's office in Front Square Trinity College. Outside, his colleagues are preparing for the upcoming Freshers' Week. It's one of the busiest times in the university calendar and though Tom is very gentlemanly in his welcome, he knows he's needed outside. Yet still he takes his time explaining to me how he came to realise that he had a serious problem that needed professional help, and why he believes that people need to talk more about the issue of mental health.
"Initially I would have labelled myself as odd, I had very low self-esteem ... I thought I was just a stereotype of a moody teenager; I would
have even labelled my suicide ideation as the trials and tribulations of being a teenager – something that I had to go through and keep hidden from my friends and my parents.
"I had my first suicidal thought at the age of 13; I didn't think I'd make 18 years of age. I bottled it up so long, for four years, and I had resigned myself to self-destruction at 18 – but I thought maybe, just maybe, there's an alternative, maybe there is another way out," he explains.
It was a talk by the mental health group Aware that persuaded Tom to seek help. On a checklist of symptoms for depression, he ticked all of them: "That's when I knew I should be seeing a GP; that suicide ideation wasn't normal, and that was the catalyst for telling my parents".
Telling his parents that he had suffered with thoughts of doing away with himself for years was traumatic – both for him to say and for them to hear. "The two hardest things I ever had to do in my life were telling my sister that dad wasn't going to make it, and telling my parents about my depression. Honestly, they were on a par," he says.
"I was still in fifth year in school. I told my mam first – I remember shaking, I didn't think it would take that much emotion. Then I told my dad, and he was very, very upset. [He cried.] He hadn't been diagnosed [with pancreatic cancer] yet, but there was later a tendency among my friends to associate my illness with his cancer."
He continues: "It's so very hard for parents when they realise the seriousness of it; that a child of theirs is suffering depression and suicide ideation.
"This is their child, their baby, for whom they've sacrificed so much, and they are thinking of taking their own life? It's incredibly heart-breaking."
When I ask if Tom ever felt under additional pressure as a member of a great political dynasty, he says: "I always felt a duty as a son to impress ... but I never felt any particular pressure from my parents. And I always felt loved, no matter what I did – my dad fully supported my decision of wanting to become a filmmaker, for instance".
After Tom told his parents about his illness, things started to change.
"I felt so much relief afterwards ... [And] I also found a lot of relief from opening up and putting my problems on to the shoulders of a professional who is paid to cope with it, whose job it is to explore your problems and work with you to deal with them."
Tom was put on a care plan involving medication, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness, which he finds particularly helpful. "I find mindfulness effective for suicide ideation because it really helps with breathing and managing thoughts, rather than putting them to one side."
But, as many people who have experienced episodes of depression will attest, it doesn't just miraculously disappear after you acknowledge its presence. Setbacks can occur, sometimes even more severe than previously experienced. Tom's suicide attempt came later, at the age of 18, after he had told his parents about his depression, before his father's illness but during a very dark period of his life.
"I felt very fragile, in a very existentialist place, I was hell-bent on ending it. When I attempted it my parents didn't know, nor did any of my friends, and that was a very lonely place to be, a very scary place," he says.
Tom talks about his emotions when his father became ill. "I mean, I knew medically I wasn't responsible for his illness, but I still felt a huge level of guilt ... that I was putting him through this ... it was a very difficult time."
Tom recovered, rebounded, survived. Now, at age 22, he is using his own experience of depression to help others who may find themselves in similar situations.
"I put it in my manifesto [for election as president of the union] as my main point; that the issue most affecting students today is mental health."
He says that he finds working in the students' union "very meaningful, because we come into contact with people who need support, who have lots of issues, not just welfare issues, but in all areas. And when you see the changes you can effect, the difference it can make in people's lives, what you can do to help..."
He stops and thinks. Being of support to other young people in difficulty is obviously of huge importance to him, a way of turning those miserable years into something positive; a way, perhaps, of carrying on his family's legacy of public service but in a manner that totally belongs to Tom, is of him and him alone.
He continues: "Here, I feel that I can offer something; be a help to others. We work solely for our students, we represent them."
So you won't be going into party politics then, I joke.
"No," he laughs. "Because you can't do that [help everyone] – you have to keep saying 'no' in politics, and represent so many different interests, whereas here I just represent the students and I'm in a position to say 'yes' to them. Our pastoral services are here to help everyone. Often it's easier to talk to a peer than a parent."
He smiles; "And we're here to talk to anybody ... "
Contacts: Tom Lenihan firstname.lastname@example.org Stephen Garry email@example.com
Samaritans: 1850609090 Aware: 1890303302
Sunday IndependentFollow @Independent_ie