Confronting mental illness: Awareness is the roadmap to recovery

LAST Sunday, in an event that in so many ways transcended sport, Cork camogie captain Ashling Thompson captained her county team to win the All Ireland title decisively. Even though Galway supporters — and even some neutrals — might have preferred a different conclusion anyone who knows the personal journey successfully negotiated by Thompson will recognise that her sport was a just a conduit to redemption.

They will recognise that the real, lasting victory in her life was overcoming her own depression and the suicide of a partner. Her real prize is the uplifting example she offers to so many more people travelling along that difficult, hard and too often lonely road. She did not suffer in silence or alone and now has reached heights many of her contemporaries must envy. By communicating her difficulties she overcame them. For the hundreds of thousands of Irish people touched by the terrible and debilitating darkness of depression, and for the tens of thousands more challenged to their very marrow by the suicide of a loved one, Thompson must be a cause for celebration and hope.

Camogie was, as she has said herself on many occasions, her helpmate along the road to recovering her life — “I’ve hit rock bottom and come back through sport,” she said in an interview with this newspaper last July. That she has done so, so very publicly, that she has done so while shouldering responsibilities many would shirk, must inspire those fighting their own demons to believe that recovery and a full, renewed life are indeed possible. She is not by any means the only person, or GAA figure even, to make their battle with depression public in an effort to help others but the impact she has made is not diminished for that.

Two other women trying to change things for the better in how we regard and treat mental health issues — Una Butler and Helen O’Driscoll — have travelled roads at least as challenging as Thompson’s. Tragedy, almost unspeakable tragedy, has come to their lives through mental illness. Una Butler’s husband John killed their daughters Zoe and Ella in the family home East Cork in 2010 before taking his own life. Helen O’Driscoll’s son Jonathan killed his twin brothers Patrick and Thomas in Charleville before he too took his own life. Both tragic men were struggling with mental health issues but because of our tradition of doctor-patient confidentiality neither the Butler or the O’Driscoll family knew how very sick their loved one was. They were precluded from responding in a proportionate or protective way.

However, the Government has accepted a review that recommends the law around confidentiaity not be changed. This seems a cold, almost dispassionate response and the issue is certain to be revisited. The decision however does not prevent any of us trying to change the deeply rooted culture of fear around mental illness still too obvious today. Like Thompson we need to look the demon in the eye and make sure that anyone suffering the torture of mental illness knows that if they ask for help that they will get it. The first step is the hardest but the rewards can be spectacular.

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