Young Offenders actress Jennifer Barry on coming to terms with her mental health issues

As the feisty and funny Siobhan in smash hit TV series The Young Offenders, Cork actor Jennifer Barry contributed greatly to the mirth of the nation.
Young Offenders actress Jennifer Barry on coming to terms with her mental health issues

Jennifer Barry's new podcast is called Craicin' Stigmas.
Jennifer Barry's new podcast is called Craicin' Stigmas.

As the feisty and funny Siobhan in smash hit TV series The Young Offenders, Cork actor Jennifer Barry contributed greatly to the mirth of the nation.

But as viewers delighted in the antics of Siobhan, Conor, Jock and Linda, in her private life Jennifer was struggling. Sadness, low moods and feelings of panic or loss of control were beginning to overwhelm her.

Later, she was diagnosed with depression, two months before filming the second series.

Like many people, she tried to manage the illness for months before realising she needed help. That was over a year ago and although there have been bumps along the road, she’s now feeling much better.

Now the brave 19-year-old wants to use her experiences to help others. She is developing a podcast series called Craicin’ Stigmas to have conversations about life in general.

She is currently compiling her wishlist of guests - some well known, some who simply have stories to tell. She came up with the idea after discussing her wishes with her former teacher Siobhán Ní Loingsigh.

“It’s called Craicin’ Stigmas because there are stigmas that need to be cracked, but there needs to be a bit of craic because that’s what makes us Irish as well,” she said.

“We're going to talk about all sorts of things, not just mental health. There's so much happening in the world right now and people are starting to speak out about problems.

"I think that by talking about these kind of things, that's half the battle. And I think it's going to make a difference. I really hope it does.”

Among the many people on her wishlist are Ray D’Arcy, her TYO co-stars including PJ Gallagher, Chris Walley and Alex Murphy, and broadcaster Doireann Garrighy “because she’s great craic”, she said.

“I want to get Shane Casey on because Shane himself does mental health workshops and he's brilliant. And I have my own friends who have gone to college all over the country and are away from home.

"I think they have a lot to say as well about university. I don't think mental health in college is talked about enough. It is very much focused on secondary schools.

"Nobody talks about the anxiety and the pressures of transitioning over to college from secondary school. But I want it to be a mixture of well-known people and everyday people who have something to say."

Jennifer, from Kilbrittain in West Cork, became part of one of Ireland’s most-successful TV shows at 17, when her talent was first spotted by TYO writer/director Peter Foott.

He was looking to cast new talent for his TV spin-off for the hugely successful movie. She had dreamed of becoming an actor ever since she was a child and took acting lessons locally, drifting away before returning in her teens, because she missed it so much.

She’s recently been enjoying a gap year and has signed with two top agencies in Los Angeles and London on the strength of her performance in the series.

As well as pursuing more acting opportunities, she plans to go to college this autumn, but the year out was a welcome time.

“Filming, plus the Leaving Cert, plus deciding whether to go to college, plus signing with agents, like, I was wrecked. I was just exhausted. I am going to go to college.

"I signed to Independent over in London and Hyperion over in LA. My agent over in LA, Ryan Bartlett, is originally from London and his family send him over stuff that they think is good, he watches it and that's how he found me.

"I signed with him and then through him I signed with Independent in the UK.”

Getting such high-profile agencies at an important time in her career has been hugely important to Jennifer. But the time out has been invaluable, too, having had to come to terms with her own mental health issues in the past eighteen months.

“I was clinically diagnosed with depression last year. I was sick from October 2018 but it wasn't actually diagnosed until March 2019. At the moment I'm recovering from depression and coping with anxiety.”

Her first memory that everything was not right was feeling a sense of panic because it was getting dark outside, and wondering what was wrong with her.

“It feels like it's taking over your mind. Then there’s another element that knows something's up is trying to combat that and they're just eating at each other.

"It's like in Stranger Things with Will, when the monster's inside him and he's trying to fight the monster. That's the only way I could try to explain it.”

Like many others, at first she tried to keep these feelings to herself, before they became overwhelming.

“My family were a brilliant support to me then and now, even though I didn’t let them know what was going on.

If I had anxiety attacks, I just locked myself in my room and wouldn't talk to anyone, just didn't let anyone know. Being silent is the worst thing I did.

"I was just trying to tell myself to cop on while these feelings were just fighting against me. I was in a place of despair. My options felt so limited.”

She confided in her boyfriend, who already knew that something was wrong, and planned to tell her parents, before suffering a panic attack at school.

“It was game over at that stage, the staff body knew, I had to go to the chaplain’s office and call my parents. That was the best thing I suppose, that it happened, but I wish I'd just spoken about it from the start.”

In the time since, she has benefited greatly from self care, counselling and medication, though there have been bumps along the way. She feels there is a lot of stigma around medication, which has been of great benefit to her, though it took time to take effect.

“I thought it would be one week and I'd be fixed, but it does not work that way!” she laughs.

Counselling has been of enormous value also, but for Jennifer personally, self care, in particular exercise, was a revelation.

“Oh my God, literally, I can't get over it. So much so that this summer I'm actually training to become a personal trainer. I love how my own personal trainers helped me so, so much, how you can help a person feel without having a psychology degree.

"Talking is definitely good and obviously psychologists and counsellors are vital in a recovery process, but never underestimate the power of exercise.

“It's proven that it makes you feel well, releases your endorphins. I'm just after falling in love with it.

"And I really, really believe it’s something that's helped me so much in my own recovery, in my own journey with my self love, because when you're sick with depression, it causes you to hate yourself.

"Now it's amazing, I'm falling in love with my body and myself, my thoughts and my mind all over again. And it's thanks to exercise and eating well.

“I love the gym, I think it's a really nice place to clear your head. And I've taken up running, I never used to be a runner - I’m still not a runner! But now I'm getting into it. And I find it's more than just the physical burn.

"Turn on a good old podcast and listen to it, and your mind is just zen. It gives you a moment to be clear in your thoughts and in yourself. I play camogie as well with the girls, which I love. I'm so bad at it. But I love playing with them.”

Throughout this time, both her family and her Young Offenders family have been a remarkable support. “One good thing that came out of this for me is that my relationship with my family is even better than ever.

“And my onscreen family were, and still are brilliant. We always had each other’s backs and that doesn’t stop when filming ends.”

In recent times, Jennifer has been thinking a lot about the word ‘stigma’.

“When I looked it up it actually means a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or precedent. And I think that's where there's almost a level of shame created.

"I just want people to feel like they have a voice and that they are being listened to. I hope I can make a difference.”

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