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'Jackie Collins was was so strong in keeping her illness secret, but I found it helped to be open about my problem'

By Stephanie Bell

Published 22/09/2015

Brave fight: the last picture of the sisters together before Jackie lost her battle with breast cancer
Brave fight: the last picture of the sisters together before Jackie lost her battle with breast cancer
Close family: from left, Mark Kelly with his younger brother and late cousin, Paddy Kelly

Author Jackie Collins kept her breast cancer battle secret for six years because she didn't want to be a burden. Her wonderful courage only came to light after she passed away on Saturday, aged 77.

As tributes poured in from all over the world, local TV personality Gloria Hunniford, who was a personal friend, said she understood why Jackie had kept her illness to herself.

She also said that her own daughter had fought her cancer battle in silence because she did not want to be seen as a victim. Caron (41) died in 2004 after a seven-year battle with breast cancer.

Keeping a serious illness secret is more common than most people think and sadly, stigma can be a main reason why some struggle in silence.

Today, a courageous Londonderry man who kept his depression secret for almost 20 years talks about how the loss of his beloved cousin to suicide earlier this year spurred him to finally open up and get help with is illness.

Now Mark Kelly (33) is not only on the road to recovery, but is volunteering with local charity Aware and the Foyle Advocacy for Mental Health, speaking out to help others.

He says: "I've had depression since I was about 16 years old. I kept it hidden from myself first of all as I was never willing to admit it.

"My parents broke up when I was about three and I was raised by my grandparents. I think for a long time I blamed myself and I held onto that guilt and that in part triggered my depression.

"I had a feeling of emptiness and I couldn't understand it and for a long, long time. I just thought there was something inherently wrong with me.

"I never felt like I belonged, even though my grandparents went out of their way to make me feel loved."

Mark says that rather than seeking help, he just tried to carry on with his life as best as possible: "I didn't get any help, I just lived with it for a long time. I didn't want to say to anyone I had depression as I didn't want to live with the stigma. I didn't want to be defined by it either. Also, I didn't think anyone would believe me and that people would think I was just making it up and might laugh at me. I was too frightened to tell anyone."

While Mark says that he has always worked throughout his adult life, he has drifted in and out of jobs. "I would be in them a year and then it was like self-sabotage, I would miss days and start to struggle and I couldn't understand why I was doing it," he explains.

Then, in 2009, matters came to a head when he felt consumed by an overwhelming feeling of emptiness.

Mark says: "I had this awful feeling that I was being looked at in work, that I was under severe scrutiny. I was absolutely gripped by anxiety, I felt choked by it. I was taking panic attacks and in the end I lost my job.

"I felt that I would snap and couldn't take any more.

"Finally, I came out and said I had depression although I didn't really do anything about it until late last year.

"It was then that I took the decision myself that I had to take ownership of it if I wanted to have a halfway decent quality of life. I had a cousin Paddy Kelly, who was 18 and who I was really close to. He was a great encouragement and support.

"He was behind me 100%, yet he had his own problems - but he held it all in and was never diagnosed with depression. In February of this year he took his own life.

"As bad as that was, it was the biggest wake-up call I've ever had. Paddy has given me the courage to find my voice and to stand up and not be afraid to speak about depression and I am happy to talk to people and, especially to young people, if I can help.

"The pain of his loss is hard, as he was the first person close to me that I have lost but I feel I owe it to him to carry on, and I carry his spirit and his memory with me all the time."

Mark believes that in Northern Ireland mental illness is still a taboo and men, in particular, are taught that they shouldn't talk about it. He says: "We think that if we don't talk about it, then it will take care of itself - but that is absolutely idiotic. People need to know that it is okay to talk about it and that it is not their fault, and there are things they can do to make it better. I externalised depression as this huge black faceless giant who was always trying to swallow me up. Now, I know it is always there but I'm no longer afraid of it. I've been trying through Twitter to speak out and help break the stigma and also volunteering with Aware which has been absolutely fantastic. The group has been my lifeline. If it hadn't been for the people there and the support groups I don't think I would be able to talk the way I am now.

"Cancer used to be a taboo illness which people talked about in whispers and now it's the same for depression - I want to help change that if I can. My grandmother Mary was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year and told no one.

"She worked in the health service all her life and knew what was involved in treatment and recovery and she just wanted to get on with it. She worried if she told people they would have her dead and buried. Thankfully, she has now made a complete recovery."

Mark adds: "I think for people who don't tell anyone they are ill, like Jackie Collins, it is a sign of strength because they don't want to be treated like a sick person. But asking for help is not a sign of weakness it is just a sign that you have been struggling for too long."

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