“ Talking about mental health is still a taboo in Ireland today, and sometimes you can feel very alone. I think it’s important for people to come forward and start a conversation because it’s something we really need to talk about.” These are wise words from Kat O’Connor, a 22-year-old journalism graduate from Dublin who is publicly sharing her mental health journey through her blog ‘Scribbles by Kat.’
“I started the blog in 2014 after I missed my chosen college course by 30 points, which was devastating. I had to change my plans, and so I took English and Media in Dun Laoghaire instead of my original choice, but I quickly discovered that I didn’t suit the course. Because dropping out of college is such a taboo, I struggled on for some time, but it had a detrimental effect on my well-being – and that’s when my journey with depression started”
Kat had spent the previous years of her life in a structured schooling environment where she felt there was a routine and a knowledge of what was coming next. But suddenly, she found herself on the precipice of the unknown, a thought that unsettled her.
“I began feeling panicked because a lot of people thought I was making a bad decision and my parents, obviously, were worried for me. It got worse in 2015 when I had a serious breakup. I didn’t feel like I was safe in the city center and didn’t like going in there which isolated me even more. I loved studying, and that was gone too, so I began feeling flat and low for a while. It got to a point where I couldn’t get out of bed to go to college or I couldn’t be bothered I see my friends.”
Kat’s fear of going into the city was kickstarted by an incident one night on O’Connell st, which made her feel even more self-conscious and sparked a fear of interaction with strangers, on buses and in public places.
“ About three years ago I was walking down O’Connell street, and these three guys came up behind me and were pulling at my dress and whistling at me – ever since then I have had a bad association with the city. I remember running, with tears streaming down my face, to a bus stop near Trinity College.I know they were probably just drunk, but I felt violated and like they had invaded my privacy. Going out at night in the city terrified me and was one of the things I found hardest when I was 20.”
This incident along with the lack of routine in her life began to take its toll on her. “Going on a walk in the evening was even too much of an effort. I was in such a bad mental space at the age of 21 I didn’t care for life itself, and I didn’t see value in it. When you reach that low point, you get a bit of a wakeup call. I was so young feeling that ill; it was ridiculously scary. I ended up going to the doctor about it; I knew it wasn’t normal”.
There is a lot of discussion in Ireland about Mental Health services, so what was Kats experience and did she get the support that she needed?
“The Doctor suggested tablets that were available, but I didn’t want to depend on those so I thought I would give it a go myself first to see if I could cope. Medication is expensive for depression in Ireland, and there is a lack of services for young people with mental health issues. Older generations I felt were looking down on me saying “ Go out and get some fresh air “ as if that would solve everything. It’s a distinct lack of understanding, and some people think it’s something that can be fixed by fresh air or being more positive”.
Kat decided to first look at what was making her feel low and try and make some changes before trying medication.
“I did a lot of writing and reading, and it did help. I started training for the mini marathon to get some exercise and doing some charity work pushing myself to see the value in the world and the opportunities that were out there. I started volunteering. When I was down I would feel like no one needed me around, the volunteering made me feel valued and needed. Working in the charity shop in Crumlin it was a little thing, but I could go in and sort out the shelves and serve a few people, but it made me feel valuable.”
The charity shop work is something that Kat speaks fondly of, remembering the efforts of her co workers to cheer her up when she would get low or panicked. She credits working there with restoring her faith in humanity and life. It helped her to see the kindness of people spending money for charity instead of on themselves, choosing to buy little gifts for family members.
“It made me see there are a lot of good people out there willing to help others and it made me see life differently. It gave me such a strong sense of purpose while I was wondering whether I would go to college or what I would do. It contributed a lot to getting back to myself.”
It was at this point that Kat decided to enroll in a new course and things went well for a while because she had some structure back in her life. She put off going back to the mental health services, but in the back of her mind, she knew the problem hadn’t just disappeared.
“ I was in the bank one day, and I saw a card for a Counsellor and took it and left it in my purse. I felt it was the right thing to do. I think people feel better when they can talk about it. I would have confided in my friends more so than family. I always tell people to speak to whoever they feel most comfortable with never feel pressured to tell a teacher or someone in authority. Do what feels right for you”.
Kat makes the point that although counseling is extremely helpful, it’s also very expensive. She had to pay for her sessions which made it hard to make ends meet. Eventually, she had to stop going to therapy altogether because she simply couldn’t afford it. She highlights the lack of services available on campus to students, citing mindfulness workshops or discounted therapy sessions as suitable alternatives.
“Counselling is very good it helped me deal with depression, I learned how to control the depression and learned that without me the depression didn’t exist. I was stronger than it even if it doesn’t always feel that way.”
Today life is looking up for Kat, her blog is doing very well, and she has used national media outlets to share her journey, including pieces in the Irish Times and the Journal. She continues to study, and although the thoughts of going to the city center can panic her, it’s something she is working on. The blogging community has embraced her and provided her with the opportunity to start discussions and get feedback and support.
Her graduation from her current course is coming up, and the fear of the unknown is looming again “ You find that you have to rely on yourself to make big life decisions. When I didn’t get the course I was so lost and low, and it knocked me off course, and I didn’t know how to respond. I have an idea now on how to deal with that when I get low I just think I was worse than this in the past and got through it and they help.”
Kat also believes those in the public eye have a duty to raise awareness. “ Bressie, for example, talking about mental health is so helpful because people know him and look up to him and I also see Eoin McDermott tweeting a lot about it also. it’s great to see people of influence make an effort to highlight it.”
While Kats future is looking up, she knows others out there are still struggling “There is nothing to be ashamed of so many people suffer from mental health disorders, don’t isolate yourself or think that there is something wrong with you.Go to the people closest to you and be honest about how you’re feeling, a problem shared is a problem halved.
Once I started talking I felt a sense of community and support we are all there for each other don’t let people who have negative views on mental Health get to you! You will get better it may feel hopeless now, but there is help there look at Pieta house a doctor or friend. You will get help for your suffering, just get up the courage and take that step to talk about it.”
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