Nicola Hynds has been hearing voices since she was a child, but she wants to challenge the stigma of schizophrenia she tells Áilín Quinlan.

Nicola Hynds was only four years old when the pictures hanging in the hall of her grand-parents’ house started to “move.”

“I’d walk up and down the hall looking at all the pictures and paintings. They used to move around and I was always scared that one day they would jump out and grab me,” she recalls.

She started seeing shadows walking around at night and that wasn’t all:

“I had a constant noise in my head; people talking, whispering, singing and shouting, even arguing with each other. I didn’t tell anyone, they couldn’t know because I thought I was a freak.”

She became quiet and withdrawn, and didn’t speak much.

“My parents brought me to various professionals. They knew I just wasn’t right. I couldn’t tell them what was going on though, out of fear of something bad happening.”

One child psychologist, she recalls, told her mother to take me home as trying to treat me was a waste of time, “like talking to a brick wall.” Her psychosis, later diagnosed as schizophrenia, made childhood hard and adolescence even tougher:

“I got through the teenage years but with great difficulty, I struggled in school and self-harmed on a daily basis.

“I was very unhappy and I didn’t know how to communicate what was wrong. I didn’t realise that most not everyone heard what I was hearing so I found it difficult to explain what was wrong.”

A few weeks before her Leaving Certificate examinations Nicola attempted suicide and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital but was discharged after a few days.

“I think I was just perceived as a hormonal teenager girl who was getting a bit dramatic.”

She sat the exams and passed. These days, she’s 27, and a qualified beautician but is currently studying journalism at the College of Further Education in Waterford and is due to marry her long-time fiancé later this month (April 19th).

Nicola talks openly about her battle with schizophrenia in a bid to help other people understand the illness better. A few years ago she became an ambassador for See Change, the National Mental Health Stigma Reduction Partnership, and will be speaking about the condition when the organisation launches its fourth Green Ribbon Campaign on April 27th next.

The initiative, which will include the launch of new statistics about attitudes to mental health in this country, runs all through May. See Change is a partnership of more than 90 Irish organisations working to open up discussion on mental health problems and end stigma.

There is still huge stigma around mental health issues in Ireland - figures due to be released by the organisation shortly underline this, showing 38% of people say they would conceal from family, friends and colleagues the fact that they had a mental health difficulty.

In all, 500,000 free green ribbons will be distributed nationwide in a bid to encourage people to show their support for opening up the topic to discussion.

Nicola, one of 85 See Change ambassadors, also writes a well-known blog,

“My voices only ever stopped once - for 17 minutes – back in 2015 and it was so strange,” she recalls.

The voices, she explains, are a bit like sitting in a busy restaurant and hearing loads of people talking at the same time, There is still stigma around schizophrenia, she says:

“I have been called “schizo” and have had remarks like “aw did she forget to take her crazy pills?”

“I have lost many friends, been accused of being an attention-seeker, faking illness and I have been asked on numerous occasions if I have a split personality.

“ I was told to keep my illness a secret for many years but have decided that while speaking about it is scary, it is the only way to reduce stigma. I have not looked back once since going public with my story”.

“I would say to people that they should remember the condition is not you. I cope well because I see the illness as separate from who I am – know that it is not all that you are.”

The impact on families of mental ill-health is devastating, says John Saunders, CEO of Shine, the parent organisation of See Change, which supports people with self-experience of mental ill- health and their families.

Shine offers one to one support and group support for the individual and relatives nationwide and runs education and training courses, day resource centres in Dublin, Cork and Waterford and confidential counselling in Dublin and Cork.

“Relationships become fractured or break down because there is such a change in the person’s behaviour . It leads to huge problems in terms of how families cope with the situation.

“There’s huge shock and trauma to family members,” he says, adding that it can take years for the family to accept and come to terms with the trauma. Families will live with stigma and feel the stigma, or may feel guilt that they may have in some way be to blame for what has happened, which is rarely the case,” he says.

Support the Green Ribbon campaign, he urges:

“This is a public-awareness-raising campaign around the stigma and the discrimination people feel around mental health issues.

“The campaign is simply an opportunity to bring the message to the public at large,” he says, adding that the organisation strongly believes that one effective way of combatting stigma is to talk about it:

“If people wear the green ribbon you are saying that you are open to discussing the issue of mental health and stigma.”

Speaking up on mental health to challenge the stigma of schizophrenia

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