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Mental Health

'I never want to go back there again': Journalist Olivia O'Leary on her struggle with depression

At her lowest, O’Leary said she felt ‘helpless’.

VETERAN RTÉ JOURNALIST Olivia O’Leary has opened up about her battle with depression when she was a young reporter in the 1970s, describing how holding her own with “the boys” took its toll.

In the wake of Fianna Fáil TD Robert Troy discussing his struggle with anxiety in the wake of the election, O’Leary did a column for RTÉ’s Drivetime on her own mental health difficulties when she was just 24 years old.

In it, she described how she would often miss her stop on the train because she could not motivate herself to get off in time.

O’Leary said the stress of her job – which included spending a lot of time covering the Troubles in Northern Ireland – took its toll on her mental health.

“It came upon me and I didn’t even know it was happening,” she told RTÉ’s Today With Sean O’Rourke this morning.

I was a new enough reporter in here. I was maybe the only woman doing current affairs. I was suddenly interviewing the Taoiseach and ministers and I was having to prove that I could hold my own with the lads. That included being ready to go to Northern Ireland every weekend, being ready to sit in the pub from 5.30 to 11 o’clock at night drinking gin and tonics – I could hold my drink, I could argue my corner, I could go wherever.

As a result, O’Leary said she started missing out on things she loved, like spending time with family and friends, playing “bad piano” and reading poetry.

Seeking help

At her lowest, O’Leary said she felt “helpless”.

It’s still hard to talk about. It’s still skating on thin ice because I never want to go back there again and I guard against it. It was that feeling of not being able to raise a hand to get to the phone. That feeling of lying there doing nothing because you couldn’t think of any way of getting out of it.

After about two months, O’Leary summoned up the courage to ring her sister and say she needed help. Her sister arrived within the hour and brought O’Leary to see a psychiatrist, who drew up a plan of action for her, including medication and lifestyle changes.

“I was sorry I didn’t go to [my sister] earlier. But you have to admit vulnerability and that’s a hard thing to admit,” O’Leary said.

“It was a hard thing to admit then when to a certain extent I was a pioneering young journalist who had moved in on the coat tails of the Mary Mahers and the Nell McCaffertys.”

O’Leary said she had a bad year – “probably 1974″ – and took another six to eight months to recover fully. Several of her colleagues supported her and gave her time off when she needed it.

O’Leary said she was lucky to be able to get help so quickly.

“When I think of young people out there depending on the public health system and having to wait to see a psychiatrist because there isn’t a psychiatrist available… When I think of those young people and how lonely and lost they must feel and how helpless their families must feel, that’s when you have to say: Let’s talk about this. Let’s develop a proper constituency of support for this so that politicians and governments can’t ignore it any more so they can’t go stealing from the mental health budget.

Read: ‘I crashed hard after the high of the election’: TD Robert Troy on his struggle with anxiety’

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