Learning to live with mental illness

Patrick Kelleher opens up about his experience of depression and learning to manage his mental health[br]It’s difficult to describe what it feels like to be in a position where you want to hurt yourself. The urge is both baffling and somehow logical at the same time. When pain is overwhelming, it can feel like a way to express something inexpressible – to give credence to an invisible torment.I’m lucky in that despite having suffered from depression, and having felt this urge on a number of occasions, I have never actually hurt myself. But what I can guarantee is that across this country, there are young people in their multitudes who are consumed by this urge every day. There are people on this campus who will understand what it feels like to experience unrelenting pain. They will know what the fear of raising their voices feels like.This was the experience I had when I found my mental health plummeting in December 2014. It happened too suddenly for it to feel real. One day I was OK; within a matter of weeks, I felt an overwhelming inability to cope with the smallest things. By April, things had gotten worse. In the face of the extensive pressure of my final year at university, I experienced a breakdown. I was totally floored by self-destructive thoughts, and spent an unhealthy amount of time crying. I felt like I was looking out from beneath a veil at the world continuing to move around me, but I was trapped in an alternate version of time where things were moving in the wrong way. I had fallen out of sync.In September I finally made the decision to go to my GP about what I was experiencing. I was told that I was suffering from depression, and I was put on a course of anti-depressants and advised to attend therapy. What I quickly learned was that getting better was going to be a lot of hard work – something that wasn’t an easy feat when I had no energy or commitment. This hard work can be different for everyone. For me, I had to learn ways to better deal with negative emotions in a way that was less destructive.The good news is that there are methods you can employ to improve your mental health. For me, realising that I had some control over my feelings was an empowering experience that led to a huge increase in positivity in my daily life. Maureen Gaffney’s book Flourishing outlines ways in which we can restructure the way we think, moving away from an inclination towards negativity. What Gaffney outlines in her book is that we often convince ourselves that being prone to depressive feelings is just a part of who we are. But this is not our natural selves, and telling ourselves that it is only prevents us from achieving a recognition of our true selves. For a long time, I avoided getting better because I believed that the way I felt was just a part of my identity. These feelings were actually holding me in a state of paralysis, and prevented me from enacting change.Working towards healthier thought processes is essential, but so too is learning to embrace vulnerability. Brené Brown’s lauded TED talk ‘The power of vulnerability’ looks at this idea. The people she termed as ‘wholehearted’ – or those who were happiest and most fulfilled – truly embraced vulnerability. “They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating… they just talked about it being necessary.” For many of us, we see vulnerability as crippling. The reality is that vulnerability is where connection is forged, and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is essential to being at the peak of our mental health. In vulnerability, we can encounter pain, but it is also in vulnerability that we find fulfillment and joy. We cannot erase sadness and anger from our lives without also erasing happiness.
One day I was OK; within a matter of weeks, I felt an overwhelming inability to cope with the smallest things.
I started allowing myself to be truly vulnerable for the first time in my life in the last few months. I pushed myself gently into new and challenging situations. I made the difficult decision to tell my friends and family about my struggle with depression. I did this so that I wouldn’t be alone, but also so they would understand. What I discovered was that I was far from alone. In fact, many of my friends had also been quietly suffering from depression. Some had been doing so for years. None of us had ever talked about it because we were so afraid of judgment and isolation.The revelation that so many of my loved ones were in a similar situation shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise given the statistics. It was reported in 2014 that the suicide rate among young Irish women was 2.5 times higher than the EU average. Even more damning was the male youth suicide rate, which is more than twice the EU average. Every person that has died as a result of suicide has been systematically failed by a nation that has not protected its citizens from the harm that untreated mental illness can enact. To say it’s time we started a conversation about mental health is an understatement. We cannot let this oppressive silence continue.Despite everything I’ve been through over the last year, I consider myself to be lucky. I got the treatment I needed at a relatively early stage because I had a strong support system of family and friends in place who were there to help when I needed it. Not everyone has this support. This is why I urge you to take the signs seriously when you see them. If a friend or loved one seems persistently down, angry, or hurt – talk to them. Ask them how they’ve been feeling. Just telling them that you’re there for them can have a profound effect, not only on them, but on your relationship with that person too.In choosing to write this, I am aware that I have chosen to make myself vulnerable in a spectacular fashion. I don’t want to be the kind of person that finds this vulnerability excruciating. I want to embrace it, and accept that without exposure of one’s true self, we can never fully flourish. To flourish as individuals, and as a society, we need to urgently start a dialogue about depression. We must do this to prevent suicides, and to alleviate the silent suffering that so many people across this country are living in on a daily basis.