'I'm happy to be the face of teen depression if it helps other teenagers in distress'
Super-bright and ambitious, Francesca Ranieri has two masters degrees and is studying for a PHD. She is the last person you might suspect to suffer from depression -- but she has done so since the age of 17, and has now decided to go public, she tells Anna Coogan
I was 17 and in my first year in UCD studying psychology when I needed help. I was having trouble getting out of bed and trouble sleeping and was finding it difficult to get through the day. I was referred to a psychiatrist who prescribed me Prozac and sleeping pills after talking to me for half an hour. My mother was worried sick and tried to ring the psychiatrist up because she was afraid of me being put on medication.
There was also a feeling of 'what would you know about mental health issues, you're only a teenager, wait 'til you grow up'. My mother is incredibly supportive and the confusion and fear of my original diagnosis has passed, but people found it hard to accept how I was struggling at the beginning.
I couldn't sleep on Prozac and came off it after four and a half months. Also, the sleeping pills made me hallucinate. I went for cognitive behavioural therapy which aims to teach how our thoughts affect our feelings and behaviour, but, for whatever reason, it didn't work for me.
Do people study psychology to get a better understanding of themselves? I am currently doing a PhD and I am looking at how caregivers cope when a relative or someone close to them has mental health issues and seeks medical help.
I suppose I am uniquely positioned in that I have two Masters in the area of mental health, but while one friend said she would talk to me easily because of what I've been through, another said she wouldn't come to me as a psychologist because of that very reason, so I get a mixed reaction.
I got into psychology to find out what was happening in my mind. Looking back, my second year in UCD was a struggle and I was behaving out of character. When I was in third year I went to see a humanistic psychotherapist and found her a brilliant support because I could talk openly about my struggle and insecurities.
It was when I was working on my second Masters in Trinity that I began to have recurrent and intense panic attacks, and was paralysed with fear and feeling nauseous. It became self-fulfilling, as I began to worry about getting a winter vomiting bug and losing control and throwing up in public, so I was afraid to leave the house.
I will suffer from anxiety at another point in my life, I know that, but that's okay. I know my psychological make-up, and how we're all different, and our responses are different, and how our backgrounds and the issues we deal with are different.
I was prescribed medication for depression and anxiety at that point, as my 'fight or flight' response was out of control. But I am medication-free today, and instead I am in danger of turning into a gym addict.
Research shows that regular exercise lowers anxiety and helps sleep, and I can vouch for that.
I have been with my boyfriend for nine years and he has never withdrawn from me because of my struggle. If anything I am the one who has pulled back, out of shame and fear, because I would hate him to think less of me because of my suffering from depression.
His family are talkers, and I think the fact he grew up in an open environment has helped him to be so supportive and understanding. But I do tip-toe around at times, because there are only so many times you can text someone 'I'm having a panic attack' without feeling a nuisance.
I took part in the Amnesty International mental health poster campaign because of the experiences I've had. I keep going, it's how we are in my family, and I have succeeded in reaching my goals, but I have also felt a harshness in how some people have responded to me at times.
I decided to appear on the poster to promote better understanding of teenage depression, and I am getting texts and emails saying 'Is that you in the poster I've just seen?' People have been very supportive and said good things.
If someone had an issue with me going public, they would know to keep it to themselves. I have learned the hard way to stand up for myself, and to accept nothing but respect from people. Yet I would hate to be defined solely by my depression, because it is only part of who I am. I am committed to the research I am doing on how service users and caregivers find mental health services -- even I have had to work hard to find out what works for me.
There is also a lot of enjoyment in my life. I love reading and swimming, and love going out with my boyfriend. I am fortunate to have a friend who has also experienced mental health problems and who, if I'm low, will say, 'Let's go for a walk.'
If one thing came out of the poster campaign, I would like it to be that young people are encouraged to talk about any depressing feelings or thoughts they are having. The teenage years are often the years when depression comes to the fore, because we are young and trying to fit in.
Ironically, as an adult we try to stand out, which can bring its own set of problems. The thing to remember is that help is available, and that none of us is ever alone.