Monday, 19 October 2015

Mental Health Awareness

Following on from the “success” of World League 3 in Antwerp and European Championships in London the profile of the Ireland Men’s Hockey Team has been raised in recent months.  As a result of our success the profile of all the individual players of the team have been raised, with more coverage in newspapers and online articles and increased attention on social media.
I was asked if I would use this increased profile to write something to try and raise awareness for mental health.  I have personally struggled with mental health issues for most of my life however I only sought professional help for it for the first time in January 2014.  I debated long and hard about whether or not I would write something and share it when first asked.  I weighed up the pros and cons and to be honest, there were a lot of cons (and I mean a lot) and only one real pro.  The pro was that someone (anyone) might read it, identify with it and it would encourage them to get help.  In my opinion, to help even one person outweighed all the cons, so I decided to do it.  But I decided not now.  I would wait a while, maybe a few years, maybe when I’d finished treatment, maybe when I’d finished playing hockey.  I thought it would be “easier” to do it then.  Finally I decided that this was a selfish attitude to take.  Someone somewhere might be really struggling with mental health issues but I wanted to wait because it would be “easier” for me.  After much consideration I have decided to share this now.
I first started feeling unwell when I was 8 years old.  I didn’t really understand the feelings I had at the time as I wasn’t fully aware of what was “normal” and what wasn’t.  Then when I reached my early teens, I knew the way I felt wasn’t right but I was too scared to say anything to anyone.  Despite having a network of close friends and a loving family around me, I just couldn’t bring myself to speak to anyone about it.
One of the biggest things I struggled with was the fact that I didn’t know why I felt the way I did.  I knew that I was very fortunate and that I had a lot of positives in my life that others might have envied so I couldn’t comprehend why I had these feelings and emotions.  My conclusion at the time was that it was because I was “weak” and I was unable to cope with things that “normal” people could cope with easily.  This made me even more afraid to talk to anyone about what was going on.  Since seeking professional help in January 2014, I have been diagnosed with a number of anxiety and depression disorders which goes some way to explaining why I felt the way I did and the way I do right now.  If I had known at the time that I was ill, I really hope that I would have sought professional help earlier.  I also wonder if there had been someone that I knew or knew of who was suffering from their own mental illness, would that have encouraged me to seek help?  I don’t know but that is ultimately the reason I have decided to share this.
I carried on through my teenage years without talking to anyone about how I was feeling.  Sometimes it wasn’t too bad, sometimes it was really bad, but it was always there. At fourteen years old insomnia, self-harm and suicidal thoughts were now just a part of my life.  I got better and better at hiding how I felt, and the better I got at hiding it the harder it was for me to even contemplate telling anyone.  By my late teens I was set in my ways and I had abandoned any hope of one day feeling better.  I am so fortunate to have had such a close family and group of friends around me, that were helping me get through each day even though they didn’t realise it.
My illness worsened through university, but by now I was an expert in masking my real emotions.  It had now got to the point where even if I did want to tell someone, I didn’t think that I could as they would know that I had been hiding things from them.  I worried that people would think that I had lived a lie or been deceitful by keeping it from them.  I also wanted to protect the people that I cared about from the truth. I’ve learnt since then that not telling the people I cared about was the opposite of protecting them. At that point though, I was certain that I would live the rest of my life with this “secret”.  When I started working, nothing changed, if anything my feelings got worse.  Finally I deteriorated to such a state that I just couldn’t go on hiding the way I felt. I was exhausted from life and exhausted from the way I had felt for so long.  I couldn’t remember the last time I got up in the morning and wanted to be there.  My thoughts of self-harm and suicide seemed to have gotten progressively worse and worse since childhood.  In my head it was just going to keep getting worse.  One day, I had enough and I decided I was finally going to end the pain.  I went to visit the cemetery where my mother (who passed away when I was 16) was buried.   As I looked at my mother’s grave it brought back memories of how hard she battled against cancer, how she just refused to give up.  With tears in my eyes, I decided that I wasn’t going to give up either.  I went home and sent myself an email to remind me to make an appointment with my doctor the next morning.  I view that moment as the defining moment in my life (so far).  I went to my Doctor in January 2014.  At 26 years old I finally went for help for something I had struggled with since I was a child.  This was the first step in getting help and I was referred for appropriate treatment.
A few months later I told my family and some close friends.  I provided them with a somewhat “sugar coated” version of my illness at first, but telling them was the best thing I have ever done.  The response I got from them was amazing and it gave me confidence to open up to more people over time.  Still, very few people in my life know about my illness (until now I suppose).  To date, I am continuing with treatment, and I am realistic that given the length of time I felt the way I did, that I still have a lot of treatment to go.  However, even after this relatively short period, I am starting to see some benefits already.  Starting treatment and telling my family is the hardest thing I have ever done, but also the best.  I would encourage anybody who feels they might benefit from professional help, or just from simply talking to someone to do so.
Of course, everyone has ups and downs!  Life is full of tough times and struggles. It is normal to feel low at times and it’s normal to feel anxious about some things in our lives.  I’m not an expert so I don’t know what represents a mental illness compared to what represents normal feelings everyone encounters as they journey through life, but there are experts out there, so if you feel you might benefit from getting help please do so.  If that feels like too much, maybe just talking to someone might help in deciding what the best thing to do is. There are many options out there, including just picking up a phone and calling someone from somewhere you feel comfortable.
Mental health covers a wide range of issues and illnesses but I do have some general advice for anyone who wants it.  My first bit of advice is the simplest… get some sleep!  I know it’s difficult, especially for those who live a busy life, but really try to make time for it.  If you have trouble sleeping I suggest you speak to someone about it as there are things that can help. 
My second bit of advice is, allow yourself to be satisfied.  In 2003, South African cricketer Graeme Smith scored two double centuries in consecutive Test matches against England.  The commentators attributed this feat to his motto which was “never be satisfied”.  They said because of this attitude, which he tried to instil in his teammates, he wasn’t satisfied with just a century or just one double century.  Young and impressionable, and already struggling with mental health issues, I adopted a similar attitude. I really took this motto on board.  I would never allow myself to be satisfied with an achievement. I would always be looking at what I could have done better.  I felt that if I allowed myself to be satisfied then that would mean I wouldn’t be able to improve or do better.  I now know it’s no way to live your life.  Allow yourself to be happy if you have done something well and be proud of your achievements.  Doing so is not going to stop you from doing better in the future. If you still have the desire to improve then you will.
Thirdly, look out for your friends and family.  If someone we care for has symptoms of a physical illness we would encourage them to seek medical attention.  However, we are much less likely to look for symptoms of mental health illness or recommend they seek help if they do exhibit symptoms of mental health issues.  It is difficult to recognise symptoms as people will usually look to hide them but really make an effort to look out for people who you are close to.  You can find a comprehensive list of symptoms of a wide range of mental health issues online if you have any concerns.  Despite believing that I masked my mental health issues for most of my life, I still exhibited many of the symptoms commonly associated with them, but because I seemed “ok” there was no real need for people to pay attention to them.
We also need to beware of envy.  We are all guilty of looking at people and perceiving that they have it all worked out, or that their life is so good, or that people don’t know how “lucky” they are.  We look on with envy at these people without knowing what sort of mental and emotional pain that person might be going through.  They may not be in any sort of pain at all but we have no idea, only they really know.  The world can be a cruel place and whilst we all need to recognise and be thankful for all the good things we have in life, this does not make anyone immune from illness.
My final piece of advice is to avoid being too judgmental of each other.  We live in a world full of criticism and judgement and we are constantly under scrutiny from people that know very little about us or our journey.  Avoid judging people without actually knowing the full story, without knowing what is actually going on in their head.  Often people who are critical of others are even more critical of themselves so give others a break and give yourself a break.
I have deliberately not talked about the specifics of my mental illnesses because I believe mental health issues are so broad I don’t want to make this about a particular disorder or disorders.  I want to reassure that anyone reading this who feels they may be suffering from any type of mental illness, you are not alone, there are other people struggling just as you are.  You can get help, it’s not always easy but it will be worth it.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank a number of people who have helped me along the way.  Firstly, my friends and family for both helping me just get through the day and also for supporting me through my treatment to date.  The support I have had is incredible and I will never be able to properly show my appreciation for those that have provided it… they know who they are!!  I would also like to thank my teammates, as even though they might not have known about my problems, when you feel alone in the world there is an enormous sense of belonging when being part of a team.  No matter how low I have been, no matter how bad things got, when I got to play a match I could just leave it all behind, my troubles would still be there when the game ended but for that time, I could just forget about my problems and play.  I am lucky to have shared some of the best times in my life with my teammates which I will never forget.  I would also like to thank my employers, Viridian / Energia, for supporting me and for allowing me to receive treatment at times within working hours, and also supporting me by allowing me to take time off to play hockey which is an important part of my life. Receiving support like this really makes all the difference.  Finally, I would like to thank you for taking the time to read this… Thank You!

Paul Gleghorne