Listen up, Leo

Caoimhe Brennan sheds valuable light on the harsh reality of dealing with mental illness, and the HSE’s inability to provide adequate treatment


“Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” When I first heard Donal Walsh say this, the sixteen year old boy from Kerry, who sadly died of cancer in 2013, I cried. He was battling cancer and I was battling depression. It was not the sort of depression you can talk about in Ireland, it was the sort of depression where I couldn’t get out of bed most days for three years. Where I cried every morning because I was still alive.

My body felt like it had died. I didn’t think I would be alive for my 18th birthday, or 19th, when that came. I cried because I felt nobody understood. I cried because I pretended to have glandular fever when I missed the start of fifth year due to my depression, even though somebody who I had thought of as a friend had spread the truth around the school.

I completely shut down. I would spend hours crying in the shower. I couldn’t go to school. I stopped doing everything I loved. The only thing I really had energy for was watching rubbish TV, and even then, I couldn’t concentrate. I stopped eating and lost weight. The only clothes I could bear to wear was pyjamas. 

Nobody really understood how bad it was except my family. I went almost much every service available and it wasn’t helping. I was engaging in very dangerous coping mechanisms. I ended up in hospital twice. The only joy I found in most days was lying in bed pretending I was dead.

If I had died, nobody would have seen that I was suffering from an illness, except perhaps my mother. I would have died because of my depression, but it would have been viewed as a personal flaw, that I was not strong enough. I lived in hell for five years and barely survived it. But it was not my fault. It would have been no more my fault than if I had had cancer.

Except maybe if I had cancer I could be open about how I was suffering with more people. I would have had support. I could have gone to A&E when I was feeling unwell, and I would have seen a doctor who actually helped, instead of being told to “promise” a social worker 100% that I would not try to kill myself again and being left to sit on a curb for an hour before I could tell my parents where I was. Alone.

Realities of treatment

The waiting list for the therapy in my town is two years. That is two years during which you are left to deteriorate and suffer, mostly alone, until you can even begin to see someone. Two years. I know of people who have been discharged from the acute ward and given an appointment for six months, not for therapy, just to reissue medication.

I have had doctors tell me, to my face, that I need to grow up. That there is nothing wrong with me. I have friends who have been told that their illness are attention seeking, that there are people with actual problems. I have had a nurse clean out cuts on my wrist sideways, because she thought “I would like the pain”. I have been in youth groups where the co ordinator refuses to use the correct pronouns for people who are transgender. Refuse to call them by their real name.

Its ok to suffer from mental illness if its neat, compact and finished, like Bressie. The rest of us are left to carry around our shame that we know we shouldn’t feel but do, because we don’t think we are sick anyway, we constantly feel that we are exaggerating and have that continually validated by the society we live it. Its the #littlethings after all.

But how can your friends help you though a psychotic episode, or mania, or deal with serious self harm? They aren’t professionals, but they probably will have to muddle through when the real professionals send you home from A&E, when you beg them for help because you suffer from schizophrenia and tell you “it will be better in the morning.” A friend told me how he left flowers on the grave of his best friend because that had happened one too many times. It’s a true story.

Not all doctors in Ireland are like this. I have met some incredible people who, despite am inadequate system, do a brilliant job. Who really and truly care and understand. But this is not enough. Nobody should have to wait two years to begin therapy. Nobody should reach out for help and run the risk of being turned away.

One in four people suffer from mental illness, and when you are unwell it is not something that can be solved by talking to a friend. It helps, but it won’t cure you, just like it won’t cure cancer.

The open letter to Leo Varadkar posted under the pseudonym Emma sums up what it is like to be mentally unwell in Ireland. There are hundreds of young people, and middle aged people, and elderly people, and children like Emma, desperately hoping for help. Proper help. Just so you know Leo, I don’t think anyone ever recovered seeing a psychiatrist once a month for fifteen minutes. It probably would be difficult to get over any serious illness with that sort of medical attention.

If you’re lucky, and your parents have private health insurance, private psychiatrists, psychologists and therapy programs will be covered. If you don’t, you are left to fend for yourself in an overcrowded system which instead recommends that you talk to your friends instead because they probably will be of more use than trained professionals.

Mental illness is the same as physical illness. It’s time we started to treat it as such. Until then, people will continue to die from it. I know far too many people who suffer alone and in silence. Not because their friends don’t realise they need someone to listen to them, but because no matter how loudly they are screaming, the healthcare system has its ears shut.