We beat depression, now we want to help others battle the illness
The mental health charity AWARE is running a series of Mood Walks around Northern Ireland to raise awareness of depression and boost much-needed funds. Ahead of events in Portstewart in September and Omagh in October, well-known strongman Chris McNaghten and school pupil Emma Norris tell Lisa Smyth about their own battles with the condition.
'If I get my A-levels I'd like to be a teacher and give something back'
Emma Norris, from south Belfast, was in upper sixth at Aquinas Diocesan Grammar School when she was diagnosed with depression. Now she is finally able to look forward to life, thanks to the medical profession and the teachers at her school. She says:
I wanted to take part in the Mood Walk because I thought it was a brilliant way to celebrate my 18th birthday. Normally, I'd have a party with my friends, but I was suffering with depression this year and ended up having dinner with my parents and my brother, Peter. When I heard about the Mood Walk, I asked friends and family to join me as a belated birthday celebration.
It was brilliant - about 40 people came along and it was just so special to have them all there supporting me and supporting the charity as well, especially since a lot of people don't know what to say to someone with depression and feel uncomfortable about it.
My symptoms probably started around last August, just before I began my final year at school. It was all quite sudden and there wasn't a specific trigger - my depression was all down to a chemical imbalance in my brain.
I had a very privileged upbringing and while I was growing up nothing occurred that might have triggered the depression.
Initially, I wasn't quite sure if I'd just been feeling down for a week, but then I realised that the bad week had turned into two bad weeks and then into a bad month.
I was quite aware of depression, but my own illness was my first personal experience of it, so I monitored myself to see whether it would get better by itself and when it didn't, I went to the doctor.
Some of my family and friends knew what was going on, but others didn't. Some school pals had no idea because they didn't see me first thing in the morning and had no idea how much I had struggled just to get myself up and go to school.
Different people are affected differently, but for me I had real problems sleeping. I wouldn't say that I was up all night, but I would go to bed at 11pm and there would be no chance of me getting to sleep before 2am and then I would have to be up again for school the next morning.
I was getting by on five hours of sleep and I was supposed to be studying for my A-levels, so it was really hard. I had some real problems with concentration, although that was also probably a symptom of the depression.
A-levels aren't the easiest of exams at the best of times. I would have good days where I could follow what was going on, but those days would follow a couple of bad days, so I'd still be lost as to where I was in my studies. I wasn't getting the continuity I needed to do well.
Eating was also a problem for me; there were days when I wasn't hungry and couldn't eat and there were other days where all I did was eat rubbish. It was also more of an effort to look after myself, to do things like have a shower and take care over my appearance.
After I saw my doctor, I was referred to CAMHS (Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services) and I got an appointment within a week. I was assessed for my needs and diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
It was a bit of a vicious circle because I would worry about things, wanting things to be perfect, and then that would put me in a low mood. The doctor prescribed anti-depressants and I had no problem taking them.
My depression was down to a chemical imbalance in my brain and just like you would take medication for something physical, like iron for an iron deficiency, I was more than happy to start taking medication for my depression.
I think I needed the medication to help me with the cognative behavioural therapy (CBT), which was really about teaching me coping mechanisms. I found CBT brilliant; it really helped me to learn how to manage my thoughts and my depression.
I wouldn't say that I'm cured, I'm definitely still working on my recovery, but I'm a lot better than I was.
It was about March time that I really started to feel better and it was at that point that I realised I didn't have very long before my exams. Essentially, I studied for my A-levels in a matter of weeks, so I'm not entirely confident I will get the grades I need.
I come from a medical background, I always wanted to do medicine and I have an offer to study medicine, but I changed my mind recently and now I want to go to St Mary's and study to become a maths teacher. In a way, I was inspired to become a teacher because of how good my teachers were to me. They were so understanding and helped me so much when I was trying to make up on all the work I missed.
In total, I missed about six weeks of school, which is a lot when you're studying for A-levels. But if I can do for someone else what my teachers did for me then I will be happy.
Depression can happen to anyone, which is why I'm more than happy to talk to anyone in detail about my illness.
It's so important that people are able to talk about depression and that they get help as soon as possible, because the quicker you do that, the quicker you can recover."
‘If I felt down I’d tell myself I was Ireland’s strongest man’
Former Ireland Junior Strongman Chris McNaghten (27), from Larne, owns Inspire Gym in the town. After battling crippling depression throughout his teens and early 20s, he is determined to help others beat their demons. He says:
When I was at school, I was bullied for my weight and that had quite an effect on my self-confidence. I never really dealt with what had happened to me as a teenager and over the years my self-worth got less and less. It really affected my self-esteem.
In the beginning I knew I felt depressed but it was for a reason; however, later on I knew I had a real problem when I was depressed for no reason.
There’s a difference between being depressed and having depression. Everyone gets depressed about something at some stage in their life, but it’s when you’re depressed and there’s no reason for it that alarm bells should start ringing.
I had never really resolved the issues from being bullied while at school and the depression really set in when I was in my late teens. It got to the point where I was avoiding going out with friends. In fact, I was pushing them away. I didn’t feel deserving of friends or any kind of relationship, I just couldn’t lift myself up.
I put off going to the doctor, because I never really thought they would care about what I was saying to them. I just expected them to tell me to lose weight.
In the end, though, I just knew I couldn’t live like that any more, so I went to the doctor and they listened to me for 30 seconds and handed me a prescription for anti-depressants. I took them, but they ended up making me feel worse. I looked at the bottle afterwards and one of the side effects was depression, I mean, seriously, what was the point in that?
It was after I started on the anti-depressants that my thoughts became really dark, I started to feel suicidal.
I don’t know what prompts it, but some people get to a point in their life where they just decide to lose weight, or stop smoking, or stop taking drugs or stop drinking and I just got the point where I decided I had to do something to help myself.
I had played rugby until I was about 18 and then I would have gone to the gym, but it was when I got into lifting heavier weights and decided to go for a Strongman competition that things started to change for me.
I realised that I felt better about myself; it was as if I had finally found the person I was supposed to be.
I also suffer from anxiety and people have asked me how I can enter Strongman competitions when I also have those feelings, but strangely, when I’m doing that, I can stand up in front of hundreds of people and it doesn’t bother me.
The first competition I entered was Ulster’s Strongest Man and I came ninth. Then, I won the Junior Ireland Strongest Man. All of this wasn’t just about how strong I was physically, it was about who I was mentally as well.
Any time I would get down, I would remind myself that I was Ireland’s strongest man and tell myself to get it together. It was a brilliant way for me to help myself. I felt like I could do anything, like I could achieve anything.
A year ago I opened my own gym, an experience that has been scary at times, but also great. I thought long and hard about launching my own business — I had a job in a bank that paid well, but I realised, and my family realised, that it was dragging me down again.
Ultimately, I decided to take the chance because money isn’t the only thing in life — and as it turned out, since I left the bank job I haven’t really wanted to buy anything anyway.
When I was working at the bank, I used to buy things as a way of retail therapy, but I don’t need to do that anymore.
I got involved with AWARE and took part in the Mood Walk, because I really like the way the charity works. There are so few organisations out there for people with depression.
Quite a lot of young people in Larne have taken their own lives in the past year and there are also a number of young people who are self-harming. I wanted to use my profile in the town to try and help people.
I want people to know that I went through depression and hopefully make them realise that it can happen to anyone and encourage them to get help.
I use social media a lot and make sure I have pictures on there of myself wearing AWARE T-shirts. The charity’s website is bright, colourful and really positive. Like me, many people are reluctant to go to their doctor, and AWARE offers so many services to help people with their mental health.
I’m hoping to bring a Mood Walk to Larne next year, to let people out there know what is available when they need help.
Medication didn’t work for me, but I’m not saying that if someone needs medication that they shouldn’t take it.
What I am saying is there are organisations out there — like AWARE — that can offer an alternative first and really make a difference.”
Charity’s network of 24 support groups
AWARE is the only charity in Northern Ireland working exclusively for people with depression and bipolar disorder.
The organisation has an established network of 24 support groups in rural and urban areas across the country, which are run by trained volunteers.
The groups welcome people with depression and bipolar disorder, as well as carers for people with the illness.
AWARE also delivers mental health and well-being programmes to communities, schools, colleges, universities and workplaces. These programmes include the Mood Matters programmes, Living Life to the Full, Mental Health First Aid and Mindfulness.
It runs a series of Mood Walks around Northern Ireland, with more coming up in Portstewart on September 9 and in Omagh on October 2.
For more information on the charity or to find out about the Mood Walks, log on to www.aware-ni.org.
The 10 signs to tell if you’re depressed
- An unusually sad mood that doesn’t go away
- Loss of enjoyment and interest in activities that used to be enjoyable
- Tiredness and lack of energy
In addition to this, people who are depressed can also have a range of other symptoms, such as:
- Loss of confidence in themselves or poor self-esteem
- Feeling guilty when they are not really at fault
- Wishing they were dead
- Difficulty in making decisions and concentrating
- Moving more slowly or becoming agitated and unable to settle
- Having difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
- Loss of interest in food or eating more than usual, leading to weight loss or weight gain
Anyone who experiences any of these symptoms for more than two weeks is advised to go and see their GP