Are we getting better at talking about our feelings, asks Mags Gargan
The third Monday in January – Last Monday – is considered to be the most depressing day of the year. The Christmas celebrations are over and we are all feeling the lack of sunlight and warmth, as we go to work or school in the dark and return home in the dark.
These January blues are part of the normal ups and downs of life, but for some people darkness and despair are constant feelings that won’t go away.
Depression is a very common condition which affects more than 450,000 people in Ireland (one in 10) at any one time. Any of us, irrespective of age, gender or background, can be affected at some point in our life and chances are you know someone who is depressed.
Some people describe depression as “living in a black hole” and Winston Churchill famously described it as the “black dog”. It is more than feeling sad – people can feel lifeless, hopeless, worthless, empty, and apathetic, unable to work, study, eat or sleep.
Last year Cork hurler, Conor Cusack spoke very candidly of his own struggle with depression. He said none of his physical injuries over the years came close to the pain and mental torture of depression. “It permeates every part of your being, from your head to your toes. It is never ending, waves and waves of utter despair and hopelessness and fear and darkness flood throughout your whole body,” he said.
“You want to grab it and smash it, but you can’t get a hold of it. You go to sleep hoping, praying not to wake up. You rack your brain seeing is there something you done in your life that justifies this suffering. You wonder why God is not answering your pleas for relief and you wonder is he there at all or has he forgotten about you. And through it all remains the darkness. It’s as if someone placed a veil over your soul and never returned to remove it. This endless, black, never ending tunnel of darkness.”
Depression has a number of possible causes. For some people, it happens because of a traumatic life event such as bereavement, relationship breakdown, financial difficulties or bullying. In other situations, the person may have an inherent tendency towards depression, and such genetic factors can be key in the case of bipolar disorder. This mood disorder involves not just periods of depression, but also periods of elation, where the person’s mood is significantly higher than normal.
Thankfully there are a number of treatments available for depression, so the most important thing to do is to speak to a doctor or mental health professional to get appropriate help. However, asking for help can sometimes be the hardest step. Although the taboo around depression and mental health has lifted in recent years, many people still feel unable to talk about what they are going through. Men in particular, can see depression as a sign of weakness or something to be ashamed of.
Research by Lean On Me, a charity that aims to help people with depression to speak to family and friends, found that three in four (75%) Irish people who had experienced depression said they withdrew from family and friends while they were affected.
Their survey showed over half of those affected by depression (55%) did not tell their friends or family and the main reasons were because they didn’t want to burden them with their problems; almost one in five (18%) thought they wouldn’t be understood and more than one in four (27%) felt that their friends wouldn’t be able to help them.
Family and friends
This is unfortunate, as family and friends have a hugely important role in helping someone manage their depression. Sandra Hogan from Aware, the national depression support, information and education organisation, says “family and friends have an important role to play in helping people suffering from depression in encouraging them to acknowledge what is going on and to seek help. They also play a role in providing ongoing support for the person.”
Sandra says we are getting a little better at talking about mental health in Ireland but “we have quite a way to go until we get to the point where people feel confident talking about mental health in the same way as they talk about their physical health”.
Last week Aware launched a new campaign called ‘It’s Time to Talk’ to highlight the value of quality conversation about mental health.
“It is important to talk to someone if we have a problem, even if it is difficult to do so,” says Dr Claire Hayes, Clinical Director of Aware. “Many of us talk in circles though, making the problem seem worse. The Aware ‘It’s Time to Talk’ campaign invites people to acknowledge their feelings, become aware of thoughts as ‘helpful’ or ‘unhelpful’ and focus particularly on actions they can take to improve the quality of their lives. We have provided information on key topics of concern which affect many families or workplaces in Ireland and encourage everyone to take time to talk this January.”
Three-person care team
As with any health problems, it is important to speak with a GP or health professional to get the right diagnosis, but Aware says a three-person care team is the most effective way to deal with mood disorder: the individual, the doctor and a family member or close friend. Non-judgemental listening can be a huge help as can practical support such as driving the person to appointments or cooking a nutritious meal.
If you think someone you know is struggling with a mental health issue, Sandra Hogan advises you find a quiet time to talk to the person about it in a non-threatening and understanding way – “ask them how they are getting on and if there is anything they want to talk about and take it from there,” she says.
“There is lots of information on the aware.ie website offering relatives and friends advice so that they feel better equipped to talk about it.”
It's Time to Talk
To encourage people to have meaningful conversations about mental health and raise funds for their nationwide support services Aware are asking people to host a tea party or coffee morning on January 30 and 31. This is an opportunity to help friends or colleagues to understand more about mental health and most importantly how to get help if they or someone they love is experiencing a problem.
Funds raised from this event will go directly to the provision of Awareís nationwide services which include free Life Skills programmes; free Beat the Blues secondary schools awareness programme for senior-cycle students; support groups in 50 locations nationwide; a loCall helpline 1890 303 302 and email support service email@example.com.
Aware also offers new Wellness@Work training programmes for employees and managers, aimed at deepening awareness and understanding of mental health in the workplace.
More information on all of Awareís services is available on www.aware.ie