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Increasing numbers of women here are speaking out about depression

By Jane Hardy

When Frankie Sandford — 23-year-old singer in pop group The Saturdays — dropped out out of the group last autumn, nobody knew what was going on.

The reason for the bubbly girl about town’s absence only became clear last week when she came out in the press, saying she’d been “hideously depressed” and had been hospitalised for a while before feeling able to rejoin the other four band members. Messages of support poured in and she said: “Keep (the messages) coming. I lost myself for a while but feel like me again now.”

Having made this gutsy admission, Frankie is now fronting a campaign for the mental health charity Mind.

But why are so many young women becoming depressed? Is 21st century life to blame when — what looks like — the have-it-all generation falls apart?

Association for Mental Health service manager Colin Loughran says: “I think it’s much tougher being young now. Young women have a lot of pressure making the transition to adulthood with the challenges of body image, sexuality and self-esteem — all of which have an impact.

“When celebrities say they have a problem, that normalizes the experience.

“It makes people feel, ‘what’s the big deal?’ It could also encourage people to get support,”he adds.

After diagnosis, the sufferer then faces the second problem because even today it’s still very hard to ‘come out’ as depressive.

Although depression is the commonest form of mental illness — affecting a hefty one in four of us at some point in our lives— it’s still somehow regarded as shameful.

As Lynda Bryans, herself a sufferer and campaigner for Northern Irish charity Aware Defeat Depression, says: “There is a stigma about it, but it’s like the situation with cancer, we didn’t talk about it and now we do openly.

“Things are now getting better.

“Attitudes won’t change completely until society changes, but every time somebody like Stacey Campbell and Sarah Jane Colhoun bravely speak out, the situation gets a little better.”

How we’re leaving dark days behind us‘I don’t know what I’d have done without my family’

Lynda Bryans (49) is a broadcaster and lives in Belfast with her husband, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, with whom she has two sons, Christopher (17) and PJ (15). She says:

Why did I come out with admission of my depression in 2006? I suppose part of it was therapy for me. At the time none of my friends really knew. My depression began just before my first baby, Christopher, was born and continued afterwards.

For a long time, maybe a couple of years, I couldn’t acknowledge it or talk about it.

Nobody had any idea I was ill as I was on maternity leave. I had a career in London and left at Christmas to have the baby and at the end of January was back for the Holiday programme. I didn’t work full-time until I was better and was lucky I could work around the illness.

There is a stigma about it, yet one in four people in Northern Ireland suffers from some form of depression. When I go out and give talks for Aware Defeat Depression, I usually compare it to the situation with cancer.

When people talked about cancer, they used to whisper that so and so had passed away, not mentioning it out loud and giving it names like ‘the big C’. But think how far we’ve come, with prostate, breast and cervical cancer being freely talked about.

It’s the same with mental health. We’re getting there but I try and push the point that more people should be open about it and recognise its presence in our society.

Our parents and people who lived through the war maybe had that stiff upper lip idea, that you just keep calm and carry on.

I was treated with drugs and I took anti-depressants for some months as I was clinically depressed. But overwhelmingly, what helped me through was Michael.

Had he not been there 24/7, to practically watch over me, I don’t know what would have happened. Of course mum and dad were brilliant too as were Mike’s parents. They all closed ranks and supported me and did for me what I couldn’t do for myself.

Although I thought about suicide, I never felt I would take my own life, I just felt I didn’t want to be around anymore.

When you’re depressed, you can feel that if you had a terminal illness or were killed in an accident, things would be better. Knowing you’re supported, that someone is there, listening and encouraging you and assuring you things will be better is the key.

Nowadays, I tell depressed people who come to my talks: “I’ve recovered and so will you.”

When I was anchoring the news, I looked like a very responsible, capable type of person yet a year earlier, I would have had trouble opening the door.

These days, I like getting out into the open — we have a beautiful garden, space and some chickens.

Diet is important too, so stay off processed food and sugars and have plenty of oily fish.

But you have to have hope.

‘My suicide attempts started when I was 16 ’

Stacey Campbell (25) volunteers with a group of autistic individuals and people with learning difficulties. She lives in Bangor and is currently single. She says:

I think Frankie (Sandford) has done a brilliant thing. It’s good when celebs come out with mental health problems. It makes it seem more normal, in a way.

There is a stigma and I’ve definitely suffered because of it. I’ve lost a lot of friends because of my mental health problems. It’s lack of understanding and that also makes it harder to make new friends now.

Really, it’s a lack of knowledge. I’m single now and mental health issues would affect relationships. I also have low self-esteem, which doesn’t help.

You have trouble trusting people — who can be very judgmental, I find. And my diagnosis is challenging... I’ve been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and a borderline personality disorder.

I say to people, ‘I’m Stacey, I’m not Stacey mental health’, these words are just a label.

Because of going to New Horizons at Action Mental Health I’m more in control now than I was six months ago. You shouldn’t feel downgraded, that’s my biggest thing. I am not ashamed to face the fact that I have mental health issues.

My depression began when I was 16, so that’s going on 10 years now. I can just remember loneliness, not wanting to do stuff and feeling not worthy. My circumstances were the root of my illness — I had an abusive childhood and my mother also suffered from depression, so I was brought up with it. One of my strongest memories is mum would sleep a lot of the time.

I now live a life on medication, but I feel you need to keep your own mind and personality. A lot of people are medicated, and it can make you a bit of a zombie.

The road to recovery means seeking help. My doctor originally picked up on my depression and put me on medication, including Prozac.

It got worse and I was too sad to seek help. I was very scared of turning into my mum and wasn’t offered counselling at that stage. I was very young and there was no understanding of my condition.

My suicide attempts started when I was 16 and only stopped around 14 months ago, just before I was sectioned and spent some weeks in the Ulster Hospital, Dundonald. I was a self-harmer and it was usually razor blades I used, as they’re small and easy to hide.

My sister Danielle — who’s a couple of years older than me — has always played the mother role in my life. She’s not just my sister, but also my friend as well. She lives near me and has definitely helped me come to terms with my mental health problems.

You sometimes feel you’re the only one, but since I was diagnosed six months ago, I feel at least I know what I’m dealing with. I’m on Matrazepine now and see a counsellor once a fortnight. The Action Mental Health classes for people with low confidence are great and teach you about stress management. I’m also volunteering and help with a group of adults with learning difficulties or autism.

My original job was hairdressing, but I love this work and might like to make it my career.

‘I worried about everything and I used to cry a lot’

Sarah Jane Colhoun (29) works in equine management and lives in Co Meath. She says:

My depression was diagnosed just a month before my 18th birthday, and it was described as mild. Although I have been told everybody has always seen me as a bright, bubbly — and maybe even popular — person, if that’s not immodest, I’d got really anxious during the previous months.

I was worried about everything and I used to cry a lot. All my relationships suddenly seemed problematic, with boys and with my girlfriends. Also, my mum was just recovering from a severe bout of depression and she’d been off work for a while which I found upsetting and stressful. On top of this, I found I was unable to tell anybody how worried I was, I didn't really know who to tell. My GP referred me for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which retrains your patterns of thinking and that really helped over the next few months.

But my Leaving Cert exams were pretty stressful as I hadn’t been able to concentrate on my study or revision, I used to open the book and just fall asleep I was so exhausted from the low moods.

Mum thought I was getting worse and after advice from Aware Defeat Depression, asked me if I’d been thinking about suicide. I was shocked but had to admit I had been having thoughts like that and was getting frightened, I suppose I kept expecting it to just go away. So we went back to the doctor who gave me some anti-depressants to lift my mood.

It only took six weeks for me to

see a big improvement and I went on a family holiday, then started studying sports science at college a month later. Since then, I’ve been to Australia, South Africa and Germany working with horses. I’ve finished a degree in equine management and work with a company that specialises in equestrian clothing and accessories for horses and riders. I continue using what I’d learnt with CBT as a preventative measure and when I felt low a while ago developed some of my own self-help strategies, including working out what was stressing me out the most, either at work or in life.

Then I’d try to deal with the people directly involved or challenge my thinking on the circumstances. I also upped my level of exercise, not difficult as I have a horse and dog who need their workouts.

I also try to maintain a balanced diet, get enough sleep and focus on the things that bring me a sense of achievement, closeness and enjoyment in my daily life.

In the end, I didn’t need to go back on the anti-depressants.”

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