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Wednesday 11 December 2019

Tanya Sweeney reveals her battle with depression

IT was sleeping, and not thinking, that landed me in the doctor's office. I'd consider it a huge achievement if I managed to get out of bed before midday.

Sometimes I'd be back in bed for the day an hour later. Originally, I'd put that down to lethargy, and just really, really liking my bed. Add some mindless eating, some anti-social tendencies and regular bouts of crying over something as random as a copy of Grazia, and it was clear I was ... well, a few doors down the corridor from myself.

I was losing focus in work, yet I was relatively high functioning, going about my social life just as I'd always done. No one was any the wiser, I thought. It was only when a friend sat me down that the stirrings of something a little unbecoming came to light. "You've fallen down the rabbit hole," she intoned, before booking me an appointment with her GP.

It turned out to be a shocking afternoon. I was instantly diagnosed with acute depression (the doctor's words) and told the only way forward was medication and therapy. As for the bed thing, she reassured me that I was neither lethargic nor lazy. Even then, I tried to talk my way out of the diagnosis, citing work pressures, bereavement, relationship heartbreak and other emotional baggage to explain away those feelings of burnout. "Even without those things, you've had an underlying condition for years," came the reply.

Well, that shut me up – it also scared the bejesus out of me, too. All I could remember was feeling a mixture of relief that someone was taking my dubious lifestyle and actions seriously, and horror that I was no longer 'normal'.

Gripes

After an initial wave of shame (how the embarrassment burned through me in the Boots queue as I bought the anti-depressants), I began to be quite open about it all. But the response to my casual references to counselling, anti-Ds and depression was startling.

No sooner had I said the 'C' word than my friends owned up to their own struggles. Several were seeing therapists covertly. They weren't ashamed, but neither did they want to talk about it. Another two friends were on medication (with one, I only found out when we were both seeking alcohol-free wine out in Tesco).

Talk therapy was a horse of a different colour. You grapple with the idea that you're being a tad overly indulgent by paying someone to listen to your gripes. But once you get going, you realise just how valuable counselling is, sitting there processing stuff with a non-judgmental ear.

I learned the tools to react to scenarios and I also understood why I respond to certain people and situations the way I do. It's not an hour used to dump your baggage onto someone; it's about finding a way to get on with the rest of your life and get out of bed at a decent time.

Some time ago, a friend opened up about her depression to a family member, only to be met with a hostile front. My friend was told in no uncertain terms to get a hold of herself, and was told that the family member in question 'didn't believe' in depression. Alas, depression is neither a religion nor a myth like the Loch Ness monster; it's an all-too-real illness.

In Ireland, some reckon depression is a pure indulgence; something that happens when you spend too much time thinking about things and you fancy a bit of attention. But as most people with depression will tell you, sometimes thinking is almost too great a task to handle.

While women are twice as likely to suffer anxiety disorders as men, one in four women will require treatment for depression at some point in their lives, compared to just one in 10 men.

And yet it's a condition shrouded with misunderstanding and bad PR. It's our natural reaction to eye-roll and face-palm when a celebrity talks openly about their battles with depression. Some see it as a shortcut to easy publicity. The default response: "Sure, with that money and the fame what could possibly be the problem?"

Gossip

The question looms large ... why are we so embarrassed about seeking support? Perhaps it's because depression is seen less as an extravagance and more of a weakness. I've known women to use it as grist for their own gossip mill, dressing it up as faux-concern ("I've heard she's got ... you know ... a bit of that"). For others, therapy is seen as a last resort, the final stop before some crazy stuff goes down. We don't see it as a pre-emptive measure, or a way of getting a mental MOT.

Shane Kelly, of the Irish Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists (www.iacp.ie), suggests that Irish people are suspicious of therapy.

"People don't want to talk about it openly," he asserts. "I think talk therapy is quite a young profession ... it's only around 30 years old in Ireland. Previous to that, the therapy was psychiatry, which is tied up in mental illness. People were considered lunatics, locked up, and called 'mad', something wrong with you. There is definitely a generation there that associates emotional difficulty with mental illness and psychiatry.

"It's important we make people understand that depression isn't self-indulgence," he adds. "There's a sense with some people of 'snap out of it, get yourself together, get up and go'. But it's an illness like any other. There's a difference between feeling 'down' and depression. What you don't need is a feeling that there is no help available, which makes depression worse."

Just last month, comedian Ruby Wax, herself someone who suffers from clinical depression and who is a psychotherapist, spoke out about hiding depression in the workplace.

She has admitted that when she first suffered from depression, her husband hid it from her children and friends – was something that they both decided was best. The exposure in the press about her mental health almost came about by mistake – she was shocked to find herself fronting a national Comic Relief campaign, as she merely thought it was a small campaign – but now she is glad that it did and works tirelessly to challenge the stigmas.

Speaking at the Hay Festival in Britain about her own experience of depression, she added she would "never, ever" advocate sufferers highlight the problem in the workplace because they can experience discrimination.

Kelly disagrees with this approach: "I think it does perpetuate the stigma," he says. "By not disclosing problems, there's an insinuation that you should keep it secret because you'll get a bad reaction. We need to create an environment where people feel safe that they're receiving treatment.

People are afraid to reveal that they have a mental illness, in case it affects job prospects, or they are seen as weak or a liability. But if people around you know you are getting treatment it can make life so much easier."

Spin

Here's the simple truth; the brain is extremely powerful. Naturally, it has the capacity to create worrying, strange or toxic narratives: 'You're not good enough'. 'You're not popular'. 'You are unlovable, and unattractive'. And at times like that, it's easy to internalise, making the problem worse. Yet just because your brain doesn't create such disturbing spin doesn't make you a better or worse person than I. We're just different, and I need to be taught a couple more coping mechanisms than most.

Whether you have a mental illness or are just having problems coming to terms with a difficult period, one thing stands firm. If you think you might need it, there's a very good chance you do.

"I would always say to someone, give therapy a go," says Kelly. "Give it a shot and see how it goes. Discuss why you're there and what you want and the therapist will work with you."

Change might be happening at a glacial pace, but the signs are strong that we are moving towards acceptance. Recent Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy statistics show that almost 90pc of people think it's more acceptable to talk about emotional problems than in the past. New research also shows that more than four out of five (86pc) believe people might be happier if they talked to a counsellor or psychotherapist.

We're some way off the American fondness for beginning sentences with the line 'my shrink says', but it's a start.

In the meantime, I'm with Ruby Wax, whose mantra is, "I have an illness, I am not stupid, crazy, brain-damaged. I'm not slow, a failure, a moron. I simply have an illness."

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