So it’s mental health week. I talk about my mental health a lot, and there are many people out there who do. Newspapers, TV stations, Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled with pieces and opinions on mental health. But what happens when we look behind these? As a nation do we really speak in an open manner about our mental health, can we really do that? Through reflecting on some of my own experiences with mental health, I hope to highlight the need to talk but also the need to listen.
Three weeks before I walked through front arch as a Trinity student I was out for dinner with my family celebrating that I had gotten my place here. We went out, placed our order and then my mother got a phone call. I didn’t need to be told. I could sense it, it had always been there, will he or won’t he? And this time he did. The Gardaí wouldn’t tell us until they got there and the news was as I had expected. They had found my father’s body in his apartment 24 hours after he’d been discharged from the mental health unit of the local hospital. He was meant to attend an appointment that day but instead lay dead on his bathroom floor.
“His mental illness had always affected him, but he never spoke about it, so I never really understood what was wrong with my father.”
I’ll never forget that night, I’ll never forget how cold his back felt, how much I cried as I whispered “I’m sorry” over and over when I accompanied my mother to see his body. He had been sick for so long. Yes, I may have finally lost him but in all honesty I had lost him many years before. His mental illness had always affected him, but he never spoke about it, so I never really understood what was wrong with my father. Years before, when he had had his breakdown, it had ripped my father out of his body and replaced him with a stranger, unable to live in our reality and made numb through a cocktail of medication.
The days that came after were difficult. We were told it was natural causes but I knew everyone suspected what it was. I told a few friends about his death and very few came to see me, many stayed away. Our community was good and people were there over the days of the funeral but once it was over it felt like I couldn’t say anything. I never wanted to burden people with it and that’s something that looking back really concerns me. While people could talk about deaths that were caused by anything else, remember their family members, or just tell people that their family member or friend died, I kept quiet. How do you speak about your Dad’s death when you’re almost positive it was a suicide? How do you keep a smile on your face when people pry at how he died, when you know it’s to gossip about you and your family? How do you move on when the only people you can talk about such a tragedy to are your parent and siblings?
Going to college was tough. Dad’s month’s mind loomed at me at the end of Freshers’ week. No matter how much fun I had, I knew I had to go home to a mass to remind me that he killed himself. The first few weeks were turbulent and I had to hide it. I told very few people of his death, never mentioning that it could be suicide. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be the person whose Dad had killed himself. I just wanted to be normal, I wanted to pretend my teenage years hadn’t been full of fear over when he’d do it, anxious every time my mother told me that he was back in the hospital. But I kept quiet, I wanted to be me and not this sad shell of a human being his death had made me. My act was so good that I probably seemed like the happiest person you’ve ever meet.
“For all our country’s talk of speaking about issues, it seemed like I’d be better of strapping some duct tape across my mouth and pretending it never happened.”
We were told the cause of death after Christmas and the news hit me hard. He had committed suicide by overdosing on his medication. After I found out I told a very small portion of my friends and tried to get through it myself. I know people don’t really know what to say in these situations but none of it seemed to help. People always say to talk about things if they get you down, and I was seeing a psychiatrist, but I just wanted my friends. For all our country’s talk of speaking about issues, it seemed like I’d be better of strapping some duct tape across my mouth and pretending it never happened. And that really worries me, not for myself, but for others like me.
There’s one night in particular that sums up this feeling of isolation for me. I went to see Room with a friend. I’ll admit it wasn’t a great choice of film considering my emotional state but once Brie Larson’s suicide attempt was shown on the screen I broke down. I was between a fit of tears and a panic attack. I covered my mouth to try and make less noise, to not disturb those around me. I was violently shaking and the tears just wouldn’t stop coming. I was terrified. I couldn’t get the image of my Dad’s lifeless body in a bathroom like the one just shown out of my head. I was screaming internally. I would have given anything for somebody to just turn and ask me was I ok and it was in this moment that I realised I’m never really going to leave that cinema. The lights may come up at the end of the show but when it comes to my father’s suicide I will always be silenced. Even though I am surrounded by people, my emotions will always be in the dark and because of that nobody will know of the pain I have gone through and still go through to this day.
I want to highlight how important it is for us to change our attitudes to mental health as a nation. In Trinity I have felt relatively safe about discussing this with those I trust but outside of campus I feel it is a very different story. A dialogue needs to be maintained by all in Ireland, not only to help the families and friends of those affected by suicide, but to help people who just need somebody to listen to them, to not be judged and receive the support that they deserve.