Beginning to talk: Niall Breslin on mental health

Talk around mental health in Ireland and further afield tends to focus on facts and figures. A report released by the European Child Safety Alliance in 2014 showed that Ireland has one of the highest rates of death by suicide in Europe among young people under 25. A World Health Organisation (WHO) report showed recently that over 800,000 people each year die by suicide across the world.

The statistics are startling and often upsetting. However, discussion of the people behind the numbers has often been left aside, with talk of mental health and fitness only coming to the fore when a person has already been suffering. It has often been said that prevention is better than cure; where mental health is concerned, this saying seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Household name Niall Breslin has brought discussion of mental health and wellbeing to the fore recently with his new book, Me and My Mate Jeffrey. The book chronicles in a raw and often harrowing way Breslin’s own struggles with depression and anxiety. “Everybody has a Jeffrey,” says Breslin. “You’ve seen all the animations of the black dog of depression and stuff like that. Jeffrey is the name I gave my mental health issues. I’m a very competitive person… I felt if I had a person or an object or something I could humanize, then I could actually get competitive with it and learn to deal with it and understand it.”

Breslin has been in the public spotlight for some years now as the frontman of Irish band “The Blizzards” and longtime judge on The Voice of Ireland. More recently however he has become better known for his campaigning for mental health. Me and My Mate Jeffrey has put not only a recognisable face on the suffering associated with mental illness, but a strikingly honest one. “You can’t put bells and whistles on this,” says Breslin. “It’s not Oprah Winfrey, not everything’s going to be okay. It’s as real as I could be. You can’t half write this stuff. If there’s a mother at home who can’t figure out why her daughter’s panic attacks are so bad, she needs to know, she needs to understand how terrifying they can be… We live in a country that is absolutely fucking terrible at showing any form of emotion, they’re allergic to it. And because of that repressed pain for so long, so many people are sick around the country because of it. I got pissed off at it, why are we like that? Why are we robots?”

Breslin struggled with depression and anxiety throughout his teenage and college years. His entry to UCD on a rugby scholarship to those who knew him was a celebration, but he admits that for many years he didn’t feel any sense of pride in his achievements. “People go round and say “you must be so happy”, and I’d be like, I don’t even know what that feels like. People think that that’s a strange thing to say. I do now, but for years I just didn’t.”

It is important for students from UCD and from further afield to be able to recognise when they have a problem. But Breslin also notes how important it is for young people to be able to talk about their issues with their peers not only for their own sake, but for their peers’ as well. “One of the most emotional things I heard was from a friend of mine when I “came out” [as having suffered with mental illness] who I lived with for a while, said, “I was in the other bedroom while you were in your bedroom in agony, in agony as well.” And neither of us ever spoke to eachother about it. That type of stuff is really powerful. You mightn’t be dealing with it, but you don’t know if your flatmate or your sister is in hell. By understanding it and educating yourself you’re going to become a much better support for them.”

There are undoubtedly a great number of students and young people across Ireland suffering with mental health difficulties that have not yet gotten help. As Ireland’s largest university, there must also be a great number of these attending UCD. Breslin’s advice to his eighteen-year-old self about to enter UCD rings true for everyone who has suffered with mental health difficulties in college. “The first thing I’d say is you can’t do it on your own. You can’t, no matter how strong you think you are. You cannot deal with mental illness on your own, you need support. And support doesn’t make it go away, of course it doesn’t, but it does make it easier. And I think what I would have said to myself in college is, don’t go through it alone. Don’t see it as a weakness in any capacity. Develop a network of people that care for you. And just be wary of things in college as well. Adults in general see students and teenagers as their problems not being as big as our problems. And that’s bullshit.”

With all the headway Ireland has made in improving awareness of mental health and illness, there is still a great way to go. The publication of Me and My Mate Jeffrey represents an important step not only in Breslin’s journey, but in our discussion of mental health as a whole in this country. Breslin has built a website which is due for launch in October called www.alustforlife.com, which will be a resource for peoples’ wellness. His ambitions for mental health campaigning don’t stop there, however. “We’ve got to get into our education system,” says Breslin. “And not just get it into our education system, but prioritise it; it should become number one in the education system. Will that ever happen? – I sincerely don’t think so, but I can only dream that it will at some stage.”

Niall Breslin’s book, Me and My Mate Jeffrey is available now. He will also be speaking at Wellfest in Herbert Park, Donnybrook, on Saturday 19th September.