"I was terrified going into a psychiatric hospital for the first time. I had heard nothing but terrible things about them, and thought that I would never get out again.
Once inside, I found people of all professions among the patients, and came to realize that being mentally ill is in no way shameful. If you have a broken leg you go to a general hospital, and if you have problems with your nerves you go to a psychiatric hospital.
I was very shy and withdrawn as a child, and got bullied at school. My teacher in national school was bad-tempered and often beat me; I still have nightmares about it.
I come from a rural background in the west of Ireland. We were four boys and two girls in the family. My father was a farmer and very strict, as were lots of parents at the time. Money was scarce and we had to work hard on the farm while growing up.
When I got into my teens I started gambling and drinking heavily. I left school and went to work at the age of fifteen. At the time of my first nervous breakdown, or depression or whatever you want to call it, I was working long hours (sixty to seventy hours per week) and not getting enough sleep at nights. At the weekends I would go out until late and drink too much.
I had my first encounter with the mental health system at the age of twenty-one. It was a shattering experience. I had moved to the city and was under a lot of stress, my stomach muscles tightened and I was in terrible pain. I was convinced that I had cancer and was dying, and began having delusions like seeing tears in everyone’s eyes. I thought people must be crying over me, and two weeks after my twenty-first birthday I broke down and went into the hospital.
I had hardly been to the doctor’s before and was terrified of going into a psychiatric ward, but after a few weeks with medication and therapy I was all right again. I was discharged after two months, but down the years I have been hospitalized several times more, mainly because I did not take the medication that was prescribed for me.
I have had both good and bad experiences with the mental health services. Some of the more modern hospitals have had good therapies like yoga relaxation and group therapy, while others had nothing to offer but pills and injections. I have spent time in a state hospital that was more like a prison than anything else, with cells that had pots to go to the toilet in.
From 2002 to 2006 I was committed against my will under the old Mental Health Act. Three of these years were very hard for me. The conditions in the hospital were awful; it was a filthy, dirty and dark place, the toilets stank and there were no holy pictures on the walls. It was not fit to be inhabited, and has been shut down now, thank God.
At times I have been treated badly by hospital staff. I have been stripped naked in front of nurses and locked up in a dark lockup room for days on end on a few occasions. Once when I was very depressed because of a friend’s death, I was verbally abused by a male nurse, and when I questioned him about it, he jumped on me together with another nurse. I hit back, and ended up in the state hospital resembling a prison.
In certain hospitals I have received a little talking therapy, which I have found beneficial. It gave me a chance to talk about my feelings and listen to others. I have also done deep muscle and visual relaxation, which has worked well for me. At times I have gone to meetings in the organization GROW, that helps people who are suffering from mental health problems. These meetings, too, have been of good use to me, as they have helped me with my confidence and self esteem.
Now that my family realizes I have an illness, they are very supportive. When I had my first depression, they did not comprehend what was happening to me, and one of my sisters told me to snap out of it. I suppose neither of us understood much about what was happening at the time, but that has changed now. Today my family is a great help, and I am very lucky to have them.
My true friends have stuck with me through it all, and do not judge me because of my depressions. Other friends have shown that they do not want to know anything about my illness.
There is a lot of stigma attached to mental health problems, caused mainly by ignorance and bad publicity. I live near the hospital that I was in for four years, and sometimes when I am waiting to get a lift to one of my meetings people may gesture towards me, putting their fingers to their head and shouting insults. When I have applied for a job I have experienced that many workplaces have reservations about employing somebody who has had mental health problems.
The way I see it, depression is an illness just like any other, and no one ought to feel ashamed about it. I have been on the radio talking about the subject, and have had two books of poems published, on this and other matters. I had great reactions to it, and a lot of people came to talk to me afterwards. I have also spoken about my experiences at a conference on mental health in Dublin, in front of 300 people.
As far as user organizations go, I have had excellent help from a group called the Irish Advocacy Network, IAN, which deals with patients’ rights. I first came in contact with them when I was committed to the mental hospital. I knew nothing about my rights, and was not allowed out from a locked ward for a long period, but IAN helped me. I was also without underwear for a quite some time, and when I brought this to the attention of the IAN- group, the problem was solved within days.
In 2006, I had a tribunal under the new Mental Health Act, and the order detaining me was revoked. Now I live in a hostel and receive a disability benefit from the state. I could not afford to rent my own accommodation with the limited amount of money that I have, and finding work in the field that I was trained to do, would be difficult. The medication I am on has made me put on weight, and due to the long periods spent in hospital I am not as fit as I used to be.
I think that things have got better in the last few years, when it comes to people’s attitude towards mental health problems, but there is still a long way to go. I would like to see an end to all discrimination of people with disabilities, be they physical or mental. One way to fight the stigma could be for some famous people who have suffered from depression to come out in public and talk about it. Another idea is to teach schoolchildren about depression and other mental health problems. I would also like to see all the old, rundown institutions closed and nice, clean hospitals put in their place, with all the modern types of therapy. More money should also be made available to self help groups.
I suppose I would say the most important factor in my recovery was my own determination to get well. My family and friends were a great help and support, and the medication has certainly been beneficial. Many times I stopped taking it when I had got out of hospital, only to find myself back in there again before long. I also feel that prayer and my faith in God helped me.
There is one more thing I want to say. If you think you are depressed, reach out. Do not be scared, there is plenty of help available. I lost a few good friends who never sought help and ended up committing suicide. I would not wish that on anyone."