After generations of being told to pull themselves together the screams of those suffering must now be heard, says Conor Cusack, advocate for mental health awareness in Ireland. Photo by: RTE

Silence is deafening in Ireland’s discussion on mental health

In October 2013 Conor Cusack, a hurler with Cloyne and Cork, and the brother of Cork All-Ireland winning goalkeeper, Donal Og Cusack, wrote a moving blog on his personal battle with depression, which went viral.

After months of massive media publicity and carrying on his battle to raise awareness on mental health issues in Ireland he shares his thoughts on the subject with IrishCentral.
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A man was walking along a deserted beach at sunset. As he walked he could see a young boy in the distance who kept bending down, picking something up and throwing it into the water.
Time and again he kept hurling things into the ocean.

As the man approached even closer, he was able to see that the boy was picking up starfish that had been washed up on the beach, and one at a time he was throwing them back into the water.
When the man asked the boy what he was doing, the boy replied, "I am throwing these washed up starfish back into the ocean or else they will die of lack of oxygen.”

"But," said the man, "You can't possibly save them all. There are thousands on this beach, and this must be happening on hundreds of beaches along the coast. You can't possibly make a difference."

The boy looked down, frowning for a moment, then bent down to pick up another starfish, smiling as he threw it back into the sea.

"The message needs to be heard by all our people that there is no shame, there is no softness, there is no weakness in saying you have a difficulty with your mental health."

He replied, "I made a huge difference to that one!"

Our country has been battered by storms over the past three weeks. The extensive media coverage, in particular on TV, has displayed the devastation left in its wake. The storms will pass, though, and the infrastructure can be rebuilt.

My travels around Ireland over the last few months, giving talks to schools, mental health organizations and meeting with individuals, have exposed me to the carnage that depression, addiction, suicide and unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety is causing throughout our land. For many, especially those who have lost loved ones to suicide, the pain will take a long time to ease. For others, it may always remain, and their lost sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, grandmothers and grandfathers, neighbors, friends, and work colleagues can never be rebuilt.

The cacophony of distress, mostly silent or behind the masks we each wear daily, largely goes unheard and unseen.

For decades, we were content as a people to maintain that silence and pretend that our family, our community, our country didn’t have a difficulty with mental health. We locked up our people in institutions behind high walls, we fed them drugs to sedate them, or we were comfortable allowing them to take to the bed and keep quiet so as to not bring shame on the family.

We told our young men that boys don’t cry, to pull themselves together. We told our young women it was okay to cry but not to have ambitions beyond the home. We told our people who they could love and, more devastatingly, who they couldn’t.   

Our priests and churches told us of the original message of Christ - to love our neighbors - but they conveniently forgot the last part of his original message: to love our neighbors as ourselves. It was wise of them to do that because people who love themselves - not in a narcissistic way, but with an awareness of their own innate worth and vast potential as a human being, independent of the opinions and judgments of others - will not allow themselves to be controlled by any religion or organization.    
This person  knows that there is nothing in the world more powerful or with a greater capacity for freedom than the human spirit. They know that whatever wonderful, mysterious being created us, whether we call it God or Allah or whatever, filled each of us with that spirit, gave us the ability to reflect and be nurtured from within. They know that it does not want us to wait until we die to free that spirit, but to liberate it on this earthly plane and express all of its beauty and glory.

"The cacophony of screaming and distress, mostly silent or behind the masks we each wear daily, largely goes unheard and unseen."

They know that this mysterious being doesn’t want our churches and religions to put the fear of God into our people and try to control us and disable us, but divinely desires for our priests and ministers and Popes to empower and enable people to discover their own philosophy of life based on what is true for them.

Each day I receive e-mails, letters or phone calls from people who are struggling with their mental health, and many are from people who are suffering in silence. They endure this misery on their own, carrying the burden of despair and fear because of the stigma that still surrounds this issue in our country.

We like the image of Ireland abroad, that we are a nation of talkers, but it is a false image, similar to the falsity of the Celtic Tiger. The reality is that, in subtle ways, there are unwritten rules amongst us of what is acceptable to discuss. This encouragement of silence is a killer and it is passed from one generation to the next, not by words expressed but by the inner pain and suffering that never gets real expression.

I firmly believe that we all have a sacred responsibility to create an environment and culture within our country where we can break this cycle of silence and enable all of us to feel the safety necessary to emerge from the shadows, the barriers and the walls we have had to create around our real selves.
How many of us are fully authentic in our lives and feel comfortable expressing our own truth? I know that there are still parts of me that need exploration and expression, but my journey over the last 12 years has led me closer to the real me than I ever was before.

The message needs to ring out loud and clear, it needs to be nourished in our homes, to be preached in our churches, to be spoken about in our sports clubs. It needs to be affirmed in our workplaces and to be re-enforced in our media, from the tip of Mizen to the top of Malin head and everywhere in between, to our emigrants who have carried their emotional baggage and the fears of previous generations. The message needs to be heard by all our people: there is no shame, there is no softness, there is no weakness in saying you have a difficulty with your mental health. It is a tremendous act of courage, strength and kindness to yourself to face up to your inner turmoil and seek the support necessary to begin the journey to wellness.

I am utterly convinced that no one wants to end their own life, but they do want to end the horror and terror of their internal, unseen pain and suffering. I believe there is no such thing as a hopeless situation or a hopeless person.

When I hear of a person who has ended their life through suicide, a great sadness envelops me and lasts for days, sometimes longer. It reminds me of how incredibly close I came to ending my own life, but the vast amount of the sadness is for other reasons.

I believe that behind the heavy clouds of darkness that surrounded this person was the ever present light of their real selves, a place filled with hope and love and joy and peace, and that this place could have been reached and touched by us all.

This is the main reason for my sadness: that this beautiful, unique, never to be repeated person couldn’t glimpse this part of their being where the stillness is rich and bountiful, where the mind that is festered with trouble and worry can be quieted, where they may have finally been able to get comfortable with their darkness and see what it wants to tell them, what actions they need to take. In this sanctuary of tranquility, they may have come to realize that we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience and that their depression does not want to kill them but wants to set them free.

They may have come to realize that they are not the judgments or opinions of others, that they are not the labels that have been attached to them, and that their lives are not defined by their depression, anxieties, addictions, successes or failures.

My ultimate hope is that those who are still living but contemplating ending their lives can perhaps come to these realizations.

There is no one way to return to emotional wellness. Each person has to find their own unique path. What works for me is not the ‘sine qua non’ template for dealing with mental health difficulties. I am unwavering, though, in my belief of the capacity for each human being to be able to find hope and meaning in what is going on in their inner worlds.

I think it’s pretty difficult for somebody to have a real understanding of what depression is like unless you have experienced it yourself. Perhaps that is why people sometimes ask “Can you not appreciate the good things you have in your life?” It is the simple things in life that now give me my most pleasure. Taking a walk around the beautiful countryside where I live in East Cork, hurling training with my teammates in Cloyne, being in the company of my nieces, nephews, friends and family. Reading a book. Listening to Donncha O’Dulaing on the radio on a Saturday night with a cup of tea and a few chocolate biscuits.

However, it is virtually impossible to appreciate anything when gripped by depression. The rising sun in the morning bringing light to your outer world only reminds you of the vast darkness in your own inner world. The birds flying freely in the sky and singing from the branches only serve to remind you of how trapped you are and how the music has died within you. Your concentration levels are so inept that a sentence in a book is too much to comprehend. Looking through the back window of your house onto the hurling field and seeing your teammates training, perfecting their silky skills and performing magic with their camans, acting ferocious with each other during a game and then leaving the field shoulder to shoulder only reminds you of how the world is going on without you. The radio on in the background is just a humdrum of noise. Appreciation doesn’t survive in the world of depression.

My journeys and experiences of the last number of months have exposed me to stories of terrible tragedy, pain and darkness, and I have shed a lot of tears in that time. Everywhere I go, though, I also see the seeds of hope for our present and our future. There is a growing momentum amongst our people to see and embrace change. There are more of us realizing that the dogmas and ways of old are no longer acceptable. In the words of the Persian poet Rumi, “Yesterday I was clever so I wanted to change the world, today I am wise so I am changing myself.” More people are seeing that a transformation is needed in the way we are within ourselves and with each other.

I see the seeds of hope in the Gaelic Players Association (GPA) and the GAA. I have been asked to be an ambassador for a number of organizations, but it was only after meeting Siobhan Earley and the GPA (this is the organization that represents the GAA Inter County Hurler and Football players) and seeing how determined and intent they are on dealing with the emotional wellness of their players that I decided to accept their offer.

I genuinely find the modern GAA player to be a phenomenal species. Driven, disciplined, committed, loyal, supportive, broad minded. They go out on a field and for 70 minutes play a warrior’s sport with ferocity, passion and fire. When the game is over, I don’t believe the current generation of players are leaving their warrior spirit on the field until the next game.

They are carrying the mantle of it with them in to their dressing rooms, training fields, homes, workplaces and communities.  I firmly believe that they are evolving into warriors of the soul and spirit.

They are determined that the issues that are affecting them and their teammates won’t be hidden and silenced as in times of old. They are passionate about showing solidarity with their teammates and are willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with each other, whether it be with issues like addiction, unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety, sexuality or mental health.

We in the GPA want to ensure that our members can enforce the message that it is an act of real strength and valor to seek support and help for your mental health difficulties.     

I see the seeds of hope in the many requests I get from students to come and talk in their schools. They are not waiting for their teachers or principals to promote awareness within their classrooms, they are taking the initiative themselves and it is refreshing to see how engaging they are and to hear the interesting and deep questions they ask.

I see the seeds of hope in the Suicide Awareness event I attended in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Kilkenny on January 2. The packed cathedral took part in an evening of reflections, songs by the Kilkenny Gospel Choir, Angela Hayes’ moving story of the loss of her husband and son to suicide, and the powerful song written and performed by her son Alan. It wasn’t too long ago that a person who ended their own life could not be buried in consecrated ground, yet here we were openly talking about the issue in one of the biggest cathedrals in the country.

I see seeds of hope in the Deirdre Fees, the Joe Malones, the Jim Breens, the Pierce McCarthys, the Joan Freemans, the Mary Quirkes and many other individuals and local organisations who are doing tremendous work in the heart of communities, raising awareness of various issues.

I see the seeds of hope in people generously coming forward and telling their own stories so that others will realize they are not alone: Alan O’Mara,  Niall Breslin, Seamus Hennessy, Brent Pope, Niall McNamee, Paul Walsh, Seamus O’Donnell, Richie Sadlier and more.

Whilst the challenges with solving the various mental health issues may seem insurmountable and too vast, we need to maintain the outlook of the boy throwing back the starfish. Like him, we too can make a huge difference - for the person in our family, the person in our school, the person in our workplace, the person on our sports team.

That could be the difference between life and living rather than silent suffering and death. It could be the most important difference you ever make in your life.

2013 was officially declared the Year of the Gathering in Ireland, where we encouraged our emigrants to return home for a visit to Ireland. I really hope that 2014 can be the year where we all gather together to help, finally, in the words of Angela Hayes, tear down the walls of silence and shatter the stigma and taboo associated with mental health in Ireland so that the next time our people return from abroad, they will return to a country where they and their Irish relatives can feel safe living their own lives and feel free to be themselves.

I wish you all well on our continued journey together.

Here's Conor speaking about his battle with depression on RTE's "Prime Time":               
 

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