Jonny McCambridge: Talking is the first step to take in mental health crisis

Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 8th January 2020 -  ''Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Julian Smith and Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, are pictured at Parliament Buildings, Stormont in Belfast.''Photo by Kelvin Boyes   / Press Eye.
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 8th January 2020 - ''Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Julian Smith and Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, are pictured at Parliament Buildings, Stormont in Belfast.''Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
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It is expected when working as a news journalist that you will become, to some degree, inured from tragedy.

Reporting on death is central to this profession and while it is not healthy to be casual about human suffering, there has to be a level of professional detachment. Empathy helps us to be better journalists but it has to be balanced with an ability to deflect or absorb trauma and still tell the story in a way that helps the public to understand and learn.

Jonny McCambridge

Jonny McCambridge

I would imagine that the same situation exists, although to a greater degree, for those who work in health or other occupations which deal with bereavement regularly. How else would they cope?

None of which is to suggest that this is in any way easy. In recent weeks the media has dealt with a grim catalogue of cases of premature death. Issues around mental health and suicide have featured in several.

Perhaps it is because I’ve recently returned to working in news after several years away, or maybe because I’ve tried at this point in my life to develop a deeper insight into the workings of troubled minds, but I’ve found these stories difficult to digest as part of a working day. My brain knows no way of normalising this. On several occasions I’ve found myself phoning my wife, just to hear the voice which brings me back to my place of safety.

Conversations with friends, family and colleagues have centred around the sense of waste. And the questions. Why did they do it? Why weren’t they able to reach out? The answers do not come easily.

But there’s a more selfish emotion which has been pricked. The blunt and difficult admittance that it could have been me.

Some years back I made the decision to talk openly about my experiences with mental illness, about how I struggled for years with suffocating, overwhelming depression and suicidal thoughts. How there were countless occasions when I just could not face the sunrise and numerous times when I almost didn’t make it through until sunset.

In 2013 my despair became so acute that I was admitted to a hospital psychiatric ward. The locked doors prevented me leaving and my attempts at sleep were interrupted every half hour by a nurse whose job was to shine a torch into my face as I lay in bed to ensure that I was still alive.

Without the loving support of my family and the endless patience of wonderful and compassionate medical professionals I would not have made it through. That is certain. The war with the worst excesses of my own mind is one that I know has no end, but the buttresses that I have built have at least allowed me to call an uneasy truce.

Sometimes I am asked what was my turning point, the moment when things started to improve? Always I give the simple and obvious answer.

When I made the decision to get help. When I talked about it.

For decades I kept my desperate thoughts a secret. I was convinced I would be judged harshly if I told anyone about the dark depression. I believed I would be viewed as weak and deficient. I thought there was nobody whose mind worked like mine and, therefore, nobody would or could understand.

I grew up in rural Northern Ireland in the 1970s; it was not an environment conducive to sharing problems of the mind. It is often observed that there is a taboo around mental health. It would be more accurate to say that in the culture I knew discussions around mental health simply did not exist.

And thus, when I realised that something was badly wrong, I buried it deep inside myself, so deep that nobody could ever find it. I was terrified of the stigma. It was the worst mistake of my life.

Thankfully society has progressed and our understanding deepens each day. It was encouraging to see the New Decade, New Approach deal contained a commitment to establishing a mental health action plan. The acknowledgement has finally been made that Northern Ireland has a unique and troubling mental health crisis which needs to be specifically addressed.

And while all help is welcome the base problem, I fear, remains intuitive. An endemic reluctance, particularly amongst men, to reach out for help, to admit that they can’t cope.

I have given a large amount of my time in recent years writing and talking about mental health. My story has been detailed in blogs, podcasts, magazines, newspapers, at conferences and on radio.

And yet as I sit down today to write this column I still have a worrying voice in my head. The voice that tells me not to proceed because people will think I am weaker than them, that my colleagues and friends will be embarrassed to read my words. That there is no such illness.

After all I have been through that voice still tries to make me think less of myself than I should.

Now imagine how much more difficult it may be for someone who has never spoken out to come forward and get help. That is where the work has to begin.

Up to the point when I had a breakdown in 2013 there was not a single person on this earth who knew that there was anything wrong with me. Family and close friends were utterly unaware because I had not spoken to them.

Later, when I did talk, I heard the same line over and over. You were the last person that we ever thought this would happen to.

Which is exactly the point. None of us really know what goes on behind another person’s mask. We all have our secrets. The person who you love most could be struggling but you will not know until they let you in. There are many challenges which face our society. Creating a culture and environment where we are all able to discuss, without a trace of shame, what is going on in our heads must be among the greatest of them all.

* If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this column please call Lifeline on 0808 808 8000 or the Samaritans on 116 123