Mind your head, you’ve only got one

By Jenny Darmody

We can all feel a little down from time to time. College can be a stressful time; the occasional bad week, studying for a big exam, and having a few fights with friends. Everything feels so difficult, but after a while the difficult time passes and everything goes back to normal. Unfortunately, for about 500 people every year in Ireland, the difficult feeling doesn’t pass, but instead drives them to suicide. Also, for every death from suicide, it is estimated that there are between 10 and 30 times as many attempted suicides or episodes of deliberate self-harm.

Our mental health is extremely important, but it is fragile. We neglect it because it doesn’t always have physical pain – something that we can see, diagnose and cure like a cold. Mental health and suicide is a serious issue in Ireland, yet the services to help mental health and prevent suicide are highly under funded.

Reach Out’s Research and Evaluation Officer, Fenella Murphy says suicide deaths have exceeded road deaths by up to 100 people every year since 1998. “Yet, government funding allocated for the prevention of road traffic accidents far exceeds the funding allocated for suicide prevention,” she says.

Mental health problems are present in more than 90% of suicide victims and they will affect one in four of us at some point in our lifetime. Helpline Manager with 1Life, Ciaran Austin agrees that the motivation to prevent suicide is non-existent at government level.

“[Suicide prevention] has always been the Cinderella of the mental health services,” he says. He also says that the government strategy for mental health reform, ‘A Vision for Change’ is a utopian document that “strives to have all the services working together,” but its progress over the past five years has been non-existent.

Students are particularly at risk of mental health problems as they can fall victim to bullying and discrimination, while the stress and pressure of college can fall heavy on all students at some stage.

“There is an increased risk where other factors are present,” says Aware Ireland’s Public Relations Officer, Sandra Hogan. “It’s important for young people…to be mindful of the extra pressures they face,” she says. Unfortunately for students, their higher than average drinking lifestyle and lack of sleep can often give depression a perfect breeding ground.

“Research shows us that…75% of mental health problems begin by age 24,” says Murphy. “If you are going to have a mental health problem, then it will more than likely start while you’re young.” Luckily, there are many services out there for young people, especially student, suffering with mental health problems.

“Most colleges in Ireland have specific mental health and welfare services for their students,” says Murphy. She says ReachOut.com is an online service, which helps young people get through the tough times.

It also provides information about other services that can help people with mental health problems, such as Samaritans, BeLonGTo, Bodywhys and Aware. “[It’s] dedicated to taking the mystery out of mental health,” she says. The Aware loCall helpline and email support service is there for individuals going through depression and for people who are concerned about a loved one.

1Life is a 24/7 free phone and text service for people in need or people worried about a loved one. Unlike other services, councillors and therapists operate its phones. The service will also link to emergency services if necessary. They receive about 3,000 calls a month.

“Quite a high percentage of those calls are from people in immediate distress,” says Austin. Of course, there are ways we can all look after ourselves to avoid the need for such services, just as you can do your best to avoid trips to the doctor.

“Eating well and doing regular exercise are hugely important, as is getting the right amount of sleep and taking time out for relaxing activities,” says Murphy. However, she does believe that sometimes, young people might be left with no alternative than to seek help. “The services…exist because people need them,” she says. “While some mental health problems can be prevented, not all of them can.” She says it is about getting to the services as early as possible because sadly, suicide claims so many lives when it could have been avoided.

Hogan also stresses the importance for students to avoid binge drinking. “The human brain isn’t fully formed until 25 so alcohol… can have a significant negative impact on the person’s brain and their mood,” she says.

World Suicide Prevention Day took place on September 10 and events were held all over the country to mark the occasion. About 250 people took part in flash mobs at the top of Grafton Street and Cruises Street wearing white t-shirts that said, “Suicide can happen to anyone.” Suicide Awareness in Dublin 15 even hosted a “Light up the Sky” event, releasing Chinese lanterns into the sky.

Fortunately, ReachOut.com focus groups have found that young people were quite comfortable talking about mental health and have generally healthy attitudes towards seeking help for a mental health problem. Yet, there are always people who are too afraid, ashamed or embarrassed to talk to someone or seek help. You might know someone like that and maybe you’re worried about them.

Murphy says the best thing to do is approach them quietly and ask them if they’re ok. “You could say something like ‘lately I’ve noticed that you haven’t been yourself’, or ‘you haven’t been eating properly’ or ‘you look worried or stressed, what’s up?’.” She says you must be patient, listen and support them. You could also go to ReachOut. com and take down some information and phone numbers before approaching someone, but do not neglect your own mental health by worrying about someone else.

Talking about your problems can be incredibly difficult, especially when you feel down or anxious. But Murphy emphasises the importance of talking to someone if you feel low.

“Talking can help a person not to feel so alone in what they’re going through,” she says. “If you don’t talk to anyone, then it’s possible that no one will know what you’re going through and it’s going to be hard to get help.” She says talking to someone distant from the situation, like a GP or college health centre rather than a close friend or family member, can be a good place to start. Austin says that sometimes by approaching someone you’re worried about, it can help them open up. Hogan also advises sending an email to services like Aware if talking over the phone seems too much.

She says, “Sometimes writing down how we feel is a bit easier, especially if we are worried that we might get upset if we try to talk to someone.”

Mental health is a serious problem in this country and it’s not being addressed. Part of the problem is that this country shies away from subjects that feel taboo. Mental health and suicide should not be a taboo subject. If we ignore it, it will not go away. Not only do we have to recognise that it’s ok to talk and seek help, we have to realise that it’s ok to say the ‘S’ word. Suicide is not a crime, so why do we continue to say people ‘committed’ suicide? Why is it ok to talk about a loved one who is bravely battling cancer, but not someone who is bravely fighting their depression? Suicide awareness is about making the word suicide easier for people. It’s about making suicide less of a shameful suicide. The word ‘commit’ means to commit a crime, so no wonder suicide has such a stigma attached to it.

In addition to services like 1Life, Reach Out and Aware, there is also plenty of help at DCU to get you through the tough times. The Student Union organises some great nights out, but that’s not really their main job. They are there to help students get through college happily and healthily and they are just a stone’s throw away, upstairs in the Hub. DCU also has a Counselling and Personal Development Service in CG72 staffed by trained psychologists and psychotherapists. You can also speak to any of the academic staff, particularly if exam or assignment stress is getting you down. Students can also call Niteline on 1800 793 793 for a confidential chat with other students. It is a completely anonymous service and the volunteers are there to listen to your problem no matter how big or small. “Don’t try to deal with it on your own,” says Hogan. “Let today be the day that you take the first step towards recovery.”

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