Depression is a debilitating condition that can have fatal consequences but there is plenty of help and support available, says Áilín Quinlan
Stephen Crowley had made detailed suicide plans but an unexpected phone call from a concerned work colleague saved his life.
It was 2007, and the father-of-four was deeply depressed and in agony from injuries sustained in an industrial accident.
He had had surgery for the leg injury, but was experiencing severe pain. Although Stephen had seen a pain management consultant who diagnosed depression and prescribed medication both for the depression and the pain, the injured leg continued to disrupt life for the young father.
After the accident Stephen was out of work for 18 months, something which, for a man who was previously very focused on work and his workmates, he found difficult and isolating.
“A lot of that time I was depressed, and at one point I decided to take my own life. I had it planned,” says Stephen, now aged 47, who lives with his wife and now five children in the Co Cork town of Carrigaline.
“It was depression and the lack of self-esteem that ensued, which led me to a place where I planned to end my life, as, in a way I couldn’t fulfill my role as the ‘man’ of the house; the breadwinner, or be the father I ‘should be’ to my kids,” he recalls.
However, in late 2007 a work colleague and health professional, who phoned to see how he was doing, noticed something wrong in Stephen’s tone and asked him bluntly if he was depressed and possibly contemplating suicide.
Stephen had carefully concealed his deep depression from family and friends, but this highly-trained colleague spotted it.
“It was a shock to me that it was so obvious,” Stephen recalls.
“I was in significant physical pain and was also experiencing huge emotional pain — that was at the root of the depression.
“It was a shock to have someone ask that question. It made me realise the significance of what I was about to do.”
It was enough to make him discuss his condition with his wife Susan, visit his GP, and change his lifestyle.
“I was lucky enough to have had someone challenge me regarding my planned suicide,” he says now.
“I shudder at times to think what may have played out if they hadn’t.”
Stephen’s doctor reviewed his medication and changed it. His wife Susan, along with family and friends rallied round. He sought counselling, joined a meditation class and learned about mindfulness. By spring 2008 he was a different man. The pain in his leg had improved and he was feeling better all around.
“There was a marked improvement. I have never gone back to that dark place,” says Stephen, who afterwards took on several personal development courses and even changed jobs, though he remains with the same employer.
“Depression can be a very debilitating and lonely place — you could be surrounded by people and still feel like the loneliest person on the planet,” he says, adding that he believes this is particularly the case for men, who have been brought up he says, “not to cry” and from a young age are instructed to “man up.”
All too often, he says, the attitude of others is dismissive.
“People don’t take the time to try to understand. It’s very important for people to realise that depression is a serious illness.
“I believe it’s often not seen as an illness,” says Stephen, who has since made a DVD about his experience of depression for the UCC School of Pharmacy.
He now acts as facilitator for one of Aware’s support groups in Cork City and is a director on its board of management. Stephen is only one of many to experience depression at some point in their lives — according to Aware, one in 10 or around 450,000 people in Ireland experience this condition at some stage.
Depression can be very isolating, especially for rural-dwellers who may not always realise the services and supports available to them. This is why Aware, with the support of the ESB, will be attending the National Ploughing Championships for the first time.
The charity will be highlighting supports for rural as well as urban-dwellers, whether its support groups (Aware runs 37 nationwide, including specialised groups for young adults and a perinatal group) or a confidential conversation over the phone/email. Aware’s tent will offer visitors a taster of its popular Life Skills programmes which combat depression.
Information will also be available at the tent about Aware’s nationwide support services, and its programmes both for adults and teenagers, because it’s important to know that depression can hit at any age.
Take Helena Danaher, who was a 17-year-old Leaving Cert student when she experienced a bout of depression.
“I was going through the motions of life; I wasn’t sad but I wasn’t happy, I was just getting through life. I was quite a perfectionist and I put a lot of pressure on myself coming up to the exams,” she recalls, adding that after about a year she realised something wasn’t right.
A visit to her GP saw the teenager referred to a therapist to learn about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which she found very helpful.
“This was about changing what you’re doing,” she says — a simple example would be if she was feeling tired or a bit down, instead of sitting on the sofa she’d treat herself to an invigorating hot shower. She also learned to monitor her mood and work out why it might be low or otherwise and combat it with tried and tested activities that she herself had realised made her feel better.
“I found it worked,” recalls Helena, now a 25-year-old IT analyst working in Limerick, who adds: “I never looked back.”
Some years later when she saw an advertisement seeking volunteers for Aware, she decided to offer her services. Helena now volunteers with the organisation’s hugely successful Life Skills Online programme.
It’s important to recognise the condition and seek help, says Aware’s director of services, Brid O’Meara.
“We know from the World Health Organisation that depression is now the biggest cause of disability in the world today,” she says, adding that Aware has registered a 20% increase in the number of calls to its helpline since the introduction of its freefone number in March 2016.
“More men are also calling us now,” she reveals adding that what used to be a 60:40 split between female and male callers has evened out in recent months.
While the organisation’s city-based support groups are well attended, she says, in rural areas attendances are not as large:
“One reason we’re going to the ploughing championships is that we feel a lot of people in rural Ireland may not be aware of our services - people who would be coming to our support groups if they knew about them.
“The other reason we’re attending the ploughing championships is to highlight the existence of our Life Skills programmes (see panel).
“Since we started delivering the group programmes in 2012 we’ve had almost 10,000 people attending nationwide.
“These are very popular and in big demand and we want to make them more accessible to rural Ireland, so we think it’s important to go to the ploughing championship and let them know about the Life Skills programmes.”
AWARE SERVICES: HELP IS AT HAND
Support groups offer individuals the opportunity to talk openly about depression, bipolar, and other related mood disorders and their impact.
There are 37 support groups around Ireland, as well as a number of specialised groups to include a young adults support group and perinatal support group.
The Aware Support Line operates seven days a week, from 10am-10pm. Freephone 1800 804848.
The Aware Support Mail provides support and information email@example.com with all emails answered within a 24-hour period.
The Life Skills programme is a free six-week programme based on principles of cognitive behavioural therapy and is available to adults either in a group setting or as an eight-week online programme.
Aware offers a number of free school-based education programmes to include Life Skills for Schools and Beat the Blues, a 70-minute talk for senior cycle secondary school students.
See aware.ie for more information.
A refundable deposit of €30 is required to join the group programmes.
Aware offers a free Relatives & Friends programme, and Wellness @Work, a mental health education and training programme for employees and managers.
Aware provides information on depression and bipolar disorder for individuals experiencing the mood- related disorder, those who are concerned for a family member or friend, and people who are seeking to learn more about the conditions.
Extensive information on depression, bipolar, Aware services, self-help tips, and the monthly Aware Public Lecture Series are available at aware.ie.
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