Saturday 25 January 2020

'We can't keep brushing our problems under the carpet' - man who survived suicide attempt, addiction and homelessness

Bernard O'Hehir
Bernard O'Hehir
Kathy Armstrong

Kathy Armstrong

A MAN who survived a suicide attempt, alleged sexual abuse, addiction and homelessness is now using his harrowing experiences to try to help others saying, "don't give up, there's always someone who cares."

Bernard O'Hehir believes that the Government can't delay improving our supports services for people affected by mental health issues and addiction - because lives depend on it.

The 35-year-old had a troubled upbringing - he was allegedly groomed and sexually abused by a teacher from age 11, he then started self-harming, excessively using alcohol and drugs, getting into fights and attempted to take his own life several times.

But Bernard has now turned his life around. He is sober, a dedicated volunteer with various homeless support groups and is passionate about raising awareness about mental health.

Speaking to, he said he feels we aren't doing enough as a nation to support those who might be struggling.

"A lot of facilities here for people with mental health issues don't want to know you once you mention drink or drugs, so people might not get the support and help when it matters," he said.

"Mental health has been swept under the carpet in this country for so long that there is a real blindness towards it but we can't keep sweeping our problems under the carpet.

"You hear of seriously mentally unwell teenagers and children getting beds in adult wards, or medicine being handed out willy-nilly."

Bernard O'Hehir
Bernard O'Hehir

He continued to say: "I don't have much faith in Health Minister Simon Harris to change things, the Government seems like they're playing musical chairs - ministers taking jobs for six months or a year and then there's a reshuffle and they've made no real changes.

"The HSE also seems like a sinking ship, I think that the sooner it can be ripped apart and redesigned the better.

"People are disillusioned, there doesn't seem to be any willingness by our leaders to tackle issues affecting the public and they just seem to be throwing money down the drain.

"You can feel like you're scraping yourself off the ground and are reaching out for help just to be told that it could take 12 months, 18 months for you to access services, but not everyone has the 18 months, sometimes they don't even have 18 minutes.

"Even if they knew there would be help available in a couple of weeks it would be something but 18 months is just too long."

He feels that a lot of his issues stem from when he was allegedly sexually abused as a child by a teacher.

Bernard, who is originally from Sligo, said: "I was eleven and I didn't even really know what drugs and self-harm but it started with things like pinching and punching myself, I'd do anything to hurt myself, I would fall out of trees on purpose and when people asked I would tell them it was an accident and I was just clumsy.

"It sounds so strange but I was such a young age and trying to make up these lies to cover up what was going on.

"People say abuse victims are embarrassed but it goes so far beyond that, there was a shame there.

"I found it hard to trust teachers, I was always acting up,  getting in trouble and I got kicked out of two schools," he continued.

"I couldn't see the responsibility on my side, I just threw away my education, I got kicked out of those schools and I wasn't allowed into any others in the north-west, I went to YouthReach but got myself kicked out of there too.

"I first smoked a joint when I was around 13, I was always pushing myself to the limit, I just couldn't cope," he added.

He says his drug and alcohol intake became excessive when he was around 16 as he attempted to block out his past.

"I did a lot of things out of anger, I don't want to blame it all on the abuse though, I know there were times that I could have been a better son or brother or friend - I lied, I stole, I cheated, I cause so many problems.

"The abuse is where the majority of problems in my life come from though, it made me feel dirty and ashamed, I thought it was my fault and I couldn't talk to anyone about what happened.

"I didn't know how to fit in any more and I kind of lost touch with reality, I was angry and I'd start fights with people," he explained.

By September 2010 Bernard, then 28, says he was a "complete mess", he was severely depressed and suicidal and addicted to alcohol and drugs.

He was due to attend a religious-run rehabilitation facility in Italy but while he was waiting for his express passport to arrive he attempted to take his own life.

Bernard said: "I wanted to go, I felt ashamed and my head would tell me I was worthless.

"There was no doubt in my mind the night I tried to kill myself that I wanted to go, when I woke up the next morning I was so disappointed, I had no will left to live.

"When I got up I saw my passport had arrived, I travelled to Italy three days later."

He credits Italy as the "turning point" in his life and says that carrying out manual labour in the peaceful surroundings and being away from narcotics gave him clarity.

He stayed there for eight months and when he returned to Ireland in May 2011, he moved to Cork City for a fresh start.

Bernard enjoys volunteering with Penny Dinners - an organisation which provides thousands of fresh meals every week to vulnerable people who may be experiencing problems like homelessness, mental health issues or poverty.

He said that his work has given him an "outlet", he has also helped to set up a volunteer group called Reaching Out, which provides hot food, clothes and supplies to rough sleepers.

Bernard claims that volunteer organisations are being forced to step up as he feels that the government aren't doing enough to help.

He said: "There's some amazing groups out there, the lads on the streets can see that, we're picking up the slack for the government.

"The House Minister or local representatives often don't want to interact with local groups, who are breaking their backs for donations and support.

"The people who really care about the homeless issue are the volunteers who are sacrificing so much to do their best to help."

He is urging anyone who might be suffering from mental health issues to reach out and speak to someone.

Bernard said passionately: "Just keep believing in yourself, try to just figure out who you are and what's causing your problems.

"I feel there is still a definite stigma surrounding mental health in this country and that's why I'm telling my story, to let other people know that they shouldn't feel ashamed.

"You should never feel like you're all alone, there's always someone who cares, see your GP, contact Pieta House, don't be afraid to ask for help."

  • If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article please contact Samaritans helpline 116 123 or Aware helpline 1800 80 48 48 or Pieta House on 1800 247 247

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