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Column: Depression thrives on secrecy and isolation – it’s time to speak out

Depression is a terrible burden to carry alone. If you have depression, start small by telling a few close friends about your illness – the relief can be immeasurable, writes Fiona Kennedy.

Fiona Kennedy

I’M A 30(ish) year old, happily-married mam of two, living in a small town in Connemara. I have two crazy dogs, wonderful friends and a loving, supportive family. I also have clinical depression. So, I’ve started writing a blog by way of helping me on my journey with this illness, and in the hope that my experience may help someone else.

But what prompted me to do this? Why say anything at all? Depression is shameful, something to hide, something we should just be able to snap out of, right? Certainly not something to share with the world. Wrong. So very, very wrong.

I’ve been struggling with depression for years. With hindsight I think it began as far back as college, possibly even school, although it wasn’t until after the birth of my first child that it raised it’s head in a way that began to cause serious problems. At the time, we called it post-natal depression. I took anti depressants for six months, felt somewhat better, and put it behind me, assuming that was it and I’d never look back. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case and I’m currently off work recovering from the most severe episode yet, one which saw me take a five week holiday in the psychiatric unit of UHG.

Why was I being so secretive about my illness?

It was while I was in hospital that I began to question why I was being so secretive about my illness. I suppose part of the reason is that for the longest time, I couldn’t accept that depression actually was an illness. I mentioned this to my psychiatrist once – she challenged me to go and say that to all the people in the waiting room. That was me firmly put in my place! So, I had to accept (something I still struggle with) that depression is part of me. It’s happened more times now than I care to mention, and each episode has been worse than the last.

It is a truly horrendous way to feel, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But now isn’t the time to discuss the horrors of a bad depressive low. What’s important is that at the very bottom of this low, when I was at my worst, I realised that by hiding it I was actually making things even harder on myself. It occurred to me that if I was in hospital for any other reason, I would expect, nay, demand, sympathy, visits, flowers, chocolates. Did I mention sympathy? Yet here I was, the lowest I’ve ever been, afraid to talk to even my closest friends.

The first step to breaking the silence

So, I decided to do something about it. Smartphones are a wonderful invention. My first foray into letting people know was a text to a select few. Then, when I was feeling braver, a post on Facebook. For me, I express myself far more articulately through the written word and it’s not quite as scary as a face-to-face conversation. The response I got quite literally blew me away. I was overwhelmed by the amount of support and positivity that came my way – calls, messages, visits – I was amply supplied with chocolate and reading material, as well as the occasional shoulder and kleenex. I’d done it. Everyone knew. And the best part? The world didn’t come crashing to an end!!

That’s not to say it wasn’t hard the first time I actually spoke to someone once they knew. It was. I was nervous – not helped by the fact that I wasn’t, and still am not, feeling great. I wasn’t sure how they’d be, if they’d look at me differently, treat me differently. But for the most part, I’ve found that people are taking their lead from me. They ask how I’m doing. On a good day, I might feel like expanding on things, and they listen. On a bad day, I’ll more than likely change the subject as I do still find it hard to admit to feeling low, and they go with that.

Listening is so simple, yet so powerful. There’s no need to offer a solution – more often than not there isn’t one anyway. Platitudes certainly don’t help. But just listening, or even just asking how someone is doing, and genuinely meaning it; don’t ever overestimate the difference that can make. Humour also helps. It really, really helps. My stay in the hospital is affectionately known in my house as my ‘loola holiday’. I have friends who also have depression. They’re my fellow crazy ladies. We have to find ways to laugh about it, because otherwise it would be overwhelming.

Depression thrives on secrecy and isolation

Depression is a difficult illness, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s made so much worse when it’s kept hidden. It thrives on secrecy and isolation. When it’s out in the open, acknowledged, talked about, it loses some of its power. It was a difficult decision to take a chance and tell people, but it’s one that I don’t regret for a second. What’s been most interesting about this for me is that the more open I’ve been, the more open others have been in return. People have told me how they themselves have struggled, and still struggle, with depression. These are people I would always have assumed were absolutely fine and getting on with their lives with no bother at all. We’re able to support each other now in a way that wasn’t possible before, and that’s wonderful.

I know that there will be days when I will struggle again. I’ve been warned to expect further episodes and that’s something I really don’t like to think about. But I’m hopeful that it won’t be as hard as it has been up to now, because I won’t be struggling on my own any more. I would urge anyone who is having difficulty with depression to find someone they trust to talk to.

Professional help is so important, I’m lucky to have a GP who knows me well and a counsellor I trust completely, as well as a very supportive husband, family and friends. For now, I also have to take medication to control my depression. But as I’ve been told many, many times, that’s only half the battle. The rest is up to me. And for me at least, talking about it, allowing people to know what’s really going on, that’s the other half of the battle. Depression is a terrible burden to carry alone, no one should have to do that. Start small. Start with someone close. You might just be pleasantly surprised at their reaction.

About the Green Ribbon Campaign:

  • See Change, the National Stigma Reduction Partnership, and its 80 partner organisations have rolled out a major month-long national campaign to get people talking openly about mental health problems in May 2013
  • The Green Ribbon campaign is simply about raising awareness and sparking conversation of mental health problems; 150,000 Green ribbons have been distributed nationwide free of charge and will not be associated with any fundraising activity
  • People are asked to wear the green ribbon and support a movement to spark a national conversation about mental health in Ireland’s boardrooms, break-rooms, chat rooms, clubhouses, arts venues, college campuses and around kitchen tables
  • In first week of the campaign alone, by wearing the green ribbon, attending nationwide local events and pledging online support, over 100,000 people got on board with the message of the campaign to change minds about mental health, one conversation at a time
  • Key message: you don’t need to be an expert to start talking about mental health or have all the answers; sometimes the most helpful thing you can do is to let someone know that you are there for them and simply listen

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