Wear a green ribbon and say no to mental health stigma

Teacher Jen Ronan’s anxiety worsened after the death of her mother in 2013, and she checked into hospital depressed. She talks openly about it, so others will, too, says Áilín Quinlan.

Wear a green ribbon and say no to mental health stigma

Teacher Jen Ronan’s anxiety worsened after the death of her mother in 2013, and she checked into hospital depressed. She talks openly about it, so others will, too, says Áilín Quinlan.

In late 2013, Jen Ronan was brought to the emergency department of her local hospital.

She had been depressed and suicidal since the death of her mother, months previously.

A primary-school teacher who also works as a writer and blogger, the sparky, outgoing Limerick woman was unable to cope with the bereavement.

Although Ronan had suffered from depression and anxiety since adolescence, she had coped until the loss of her beloved mother.

“I had shown symptoms of depression in my teenage years,” she says.

“When I was a teenager, I experienced massive anxiety attacks. My parents had separated when I was 15.

“For years, I suffered with anxiety. It was not diagnosed until my early 20s, after which it was managed with anti-anxiety medication. Since then, I was in regular contact with my GP,” Jen says. But when Jen was in her mid-thirties, her problems worsened after her mother, who had heart problems, died unexpectedly.

“I was in my thirties then, and the eldest child in the family. The impact on me was huge. My Dad lives in New Zealand now, so my two sisters and I supported each other.”

Ronan’s coping skills were not up to this deep emotional loss and by the time she presented at her local hospital’s emergency unit, in late 2013, she was extremely depressed.

She was seen by a crisis nurse, prescribed medication, and later referred to a day clinic for evaluation.

She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and generalised anxiety and depression.

Jen later became involved with See Change, the National Mental Health Stigma Reduction Partnership, which is a grouping of 100 Irish organisations. It works to open minds about mental health problems and to end stigma.

Ronan (39) is planning to return to teaching, following a break. She’s now no stranger to sharing her stories in public; as a regular panellist on TV3’s Midday and the occasional chats on radio and in magazines. She says that mental-health difficulties should be discussed openly.

She writes about her own lifelong battle with depression and anxiety on her blog, www.jenronan.com

Regular routines — taking medication, meditating, using deep breathing apps to aid restful sleep, and creative outlets, such as her blogging, and regular contact with family — are crucial.

She also has a couple of friends she can contact, should she relapse or feel she may be experiencing a bad depressive episode. She is an advocate of the Aware Life Skills programme, which she has found to be invaluable, and says that making lists is a great help when anxiety is peaking.

“ I sit down and do out bullet points of all the things I have to do that are hanging over me; usually, it’s not half as big a list as my brain would have me believe.

“It takes the worry out of my mind and onto a page, thus relieving the burden and fear,” she says.

Though there’s still a stigma around mental health, she says, we are more open to discussion about it.

“It’s quite common, now, to have people either in your own personal circle, as well as well-known public figures, speaking about their experience of depression,” she says, adding that when she blogs or speak about her depression, people approach her to discuss how they can identify with her story.

“It’s very enriching to talk about it, because it frees others up to talk about it.

“One of the biggest things we have to fight against is the sense of stigma in ourselves. I find that I still occasionally have to battle with a sense of stigma about my mental health, especially when I am feeling low,” Jen says.

People are increasingly open to discussing mental health, says See Change CEO, John Saunders, who says that the organisation’s Green Ribbon Mental Health Awareness Campaign, which runs throughout May, has expanded from the wearing of 50,000 ribbons, in 2012, to 500,000 last year.

It’s expected that the number of ribbons worn during next month’s campaign will be equally high.

The ribbons are distributed free of charge to spark a national conversation about mental health everywhere, from the boardroom to the kitchen table. Anyone who wears a ribbon is signalling that they are open to talking and to educating themselves about mental-health difficulties.

The campaign has been hugely successful in recent years.

However, while the organisation’s recent Red C poll on attitudes to people who have mental health issues shows that 55% of people use correct terms, such as depression or bipolar disorder, 20% still use derogatory terms.

“Some people still think mental-health problems are reasons for ridicule or exclusion,” says Saunders.

The Green Ribbon campaign begins on Thursday, May 3, in the Mansion House, Dublin, at 11am.

Jen Ronan will be speaking at the event. For more information, visit greenribbon.ie or www.seechange.ie

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