IMAGINE taking part in a gruelling half Ironman event in the sweltering heat and torrential rain of Lanzarote that involves a 90km bike ride, a 1.9km swim and a 21.1km half marathon.
This was the challenge that four people from around the country, with mild to moderate depression, rose to alongside mental health advocate, singer and former Leinster rugby player, Bressie, who was training them. Add to the mix two psychologists, a nutritionist, a triathlon coach and a swimming coach and you’ve got quite a team behind this two-part TV documentary.
This feat of endurance aims to show how having a goal involving exercise and self-awareness can help mental health issues. The participants trained for six months before going to Lanzarote to undertake the half Ironman, something that none of them had ever done before.
Bressie, who has learned to manage the anxiety that crippled him in the past, says that the weather in Lanzarote were like a mirror of the participants’ lives. “They had all dealt with so many ups and downs and then to have to do the half Ironman in these conditions. The storm had everyone worried except for the four participants. They stayed calm which shows how far they had come. They took part in the documentary because they wanted a better way of coping with their mental health.
“The motivation was there. During the training period, we were in constant communication with them, monitoring them and making sure they were doing OK.”
Aware that he was dealing with “slightly vulnerable people”, Bressie says he never asked them to say or do anything he wasn’t prepared to do himself. “Most people with mental health problems in Ireland think they’re on their own. We want to prove that there is help there and that if people can get help, they can achieve a lot.”
Bressie says he’d love to be able to say that the challenge was all hunky dory. “But of course, there were negative experiences, breakdowns and lots of tears. But in the end, everyone walked away from the documentary in a stronger place.”
To what extent does exercise help mental health problems? “We have to be extremely careful when it comes to exercise,” says Bressie. “I’ve seen people selling it as a cure. It absolutely isn’t. There has to be a combination of a number of things. For me, it was psychotherapy, CBT [Cognitive Behavioural Therapy], mindfulness, diet and exercise. What’s great for me about exercise is that if I’m feeling very anxious, instead of taking Valium or Xanax as I used to do, I’ll go for a run. When I come back, nine times out of ten, that uneasiness is gone.”
ONE of the participants, Orla Connolly, a 27-year-old single mother living in Bundoran, decided to take part in the documentary because she felt she was still struggling with post-natal depression and the devastating loss of her mother and sister in 2011.
“Orla literally fell over the line [when she completed the race],” says Bressie. “She cursed her way through every step. But she also smiled and to watch her transition to somebody who realised that she has an incredible sense of self worth was amazing. She is inspiring.”
Dr Clare Kambamettu is the clinical psychologist on the programme. She says exercise improves blood circulation to the brain.
“It also increases serotonin which makes us feel better. And it helps self esteem. When people feel fitter, they feel better in themselves.”
Dr Kambamettu wondered whether the extreme exercise in the documentary would overpower the participants. But when they pushed themselves out of their comfort zones, they had a feel good experience and achieved “mastery at things they hadn’t been able to do before”.
Lethargy, says Dr Kambamettu, can be a problem for people with depression, making exercise hard to do. “We all experience low motivation to some degree.” The advice is to start exercising gently”.
The HSE says there “are a number of programmes designed to support mental health services’ users in pursuing physical activity as part of recovery. Most are community based and and many involve partnerships with third level colleges, county councils, sporting organisations and local gyms.
- Bressie’s Ironmind is on RTÉ2 on Nov 22, 9.30pm