Heroes talk depression - teenagers do listen
A talk by a singer and a GAA star on their teen experiences with mental illness left my children utterly transfixed
Life is not fair. An understatement? Yes, life can be terribly, cruelly, horrifically unfair. I realised this with a wallop last Thursday as I sat and listened to Brian O'Reilly speak so eloquently and emotionally - understandably still uncomprehending - about the loss of his young, clever, kind son Carl to suicide in 2012. It was the launch of Dr Harry Barry and Enda Murphy's book, Flagging the Screenager: Guiding Your Child Through Adolescence and Adulthood and Brian had noted that the book seemed as if it was "written for the category of individuals we see ourselves belonging to now" as he described those who had lost children to suicide as "a special group or fraternity of lost souls in nameless pain".
Ten people die by suicide in Ireland every week. Just think - Brian and his family are just one of nine other families who experienced the same horror in just one week.
Last week - National Suicide Prevention Week - Minister of State for Mental Health Kathleen Lynch said that the Government is "very, very concerned about suicide". She made the point that funding for suicide-prevention services has doubled to €8m, but neglected to say that we invest a much lower proportion of our healthcare budget on mental health than our nearest neighbours in the UK. Mental heath is still, despite all the despair and the needless deaths, the Cinderella of the health service.
And while we wait for mental-health services for our children to improve, what can we as parents do to keep them safe? How do we teach them to deal with alcohol, drugs, the rise of internet pornography, or bullying on social networks?
So, when Dr Harry Barry asked me if I would launch the much needed new book, Flagging the Screenager, I was delighted. This was the book I - and I suspect, many other Irish parents - had been waiting for. I was also at Electric Picnic with my children at the time; both of whom are on the cusp of their teens and I am just starting to worry about their emotional development as they head into those turbulent years.
On the Saturday, I was due to participate in a mental-health session, organised by Mary Mulligan, with singer Bressie and GAA star Conor Cusack. Both young men have been very vocal about their mental-health issues including periods of horrifying suicidal ideation. But I wasn't sure if I should bring my kids or not - were they too young? Would it make them depressed? Would they think less of - or worry about - their mother if they knew she had experience of depression? Well, I took them anyway and I don't think I've ever seen them pay so much attention to anything for two hours - not even their iPads or Xboxes.
Bressie and Conor talked about what depression felt like during their teens, when they didn't know who to talk to or how to try to explain what they were feeling. They knew there was something wrong but not what it was. When they tried to articulate their pain, sometimes they were fobbed off by professionals who thought they were just experiencing teenage emotions. They thought they would be in despair for ever. If there is one thing we can tell our children, it's that feelings of despair, depression, anxiety and even suicidal ideation - will pass.
Knowledge is so important. Knowing how to spot the difference between normal teen anxiety and an illness which requires professional help is crucial. Bressie talked of knowing that "something" was wrong with him but of having no idea what it actually was, adding hugely to his misery. Eventually he physically hurt himself so badly he had to admit to his mother: "I did this to myself".
Conor told us that the reason he was still alive today was solely due to the fact that his mother didn't go to Mass one evening at the usual time. He had everything planned and yet he knew he didn't want to die - he just wanted the pain to end. Just think of that. These wonderful, clever, articulate young men, who have done so much to de-stigmatise depression and mental illness, could have been lost to us, so easily.
For young boys today, navigating the tumultuous emotions that arise during adolescence can be traumatising. Do they know how to deal with heartbreak, rejection or loneliness in a world where girls can be casually cruel and indifferent? As Harry notes in the book: "Relationship breakdowns can often end up leading to serious suicide attempts, often abetted by alcohol. Young men can get jealous, hurt, angry and often significantly depressed as they struggle to come to terms with the fact that they have, in their minds, been rejected or replaced by someone else."
People like Bressie and Conor speaking out about their own experiences are crucial because our teens listen to, and respect, them. They help break the awful stigma that still surrounds mental illness and prevents people from getting help. We all- not just parents but friends and communities too - need to look out for our children. And we need to tell our Government, particularly coming up to budget time, that if they really are "very concerned about suicide" they should put their money where their mouth is and give mental-health services the funding and support our young people deserve.
Ultimately, however, kids need to know that parents are there to help them too. In order to try to guide them, we need to remember ourselves what it was like to be a teenager - our ups, downs, heartbreaks and depression. We need to listen, listen, listen to our children and we need to learn. It's sounds easy but it's bloody hard. Bressie told me that "my only regret in life is failing to tell my parents how much I was struggling mentally as a 15-year-old. When I turned 16, I finally gained the strength to tell them. The world became brighter from that day on."
Aware: 1890 303-302 Console: 1800 201-890 'Flagging the Screenager' by Dr Harry Barry and Enda Murphy is published by Liberties Press
In 'Bressie's Teenage Kicks', coming shortly on RTE Two, Bressie wants to find a way for teenagers from different communities to express themselves through music