Why am I so concerned about mental health?

It started with a headache. It was like someone had put a band around my head and was pulling it tighter and tighter. It got so bad that I didn’t go to the office. Headache tablets didn’t work, and I stayed in bed, trying to hide from the world.

My doctor, Dennis Collins, previously a military doctor, came to visit me. He had the knowledge and wisdom to deal with the situation and referred me to a psychiatrist. My dad took me to meet that psychiatrist, Dr Kilpatrick, who, after a discussion with me, said, “OK, I know what we need to do, I just need to find you a bed.”

Despite the pain in my head, I protested, listing all the things I needed to do and was responsible for: my practice, cashflow, my wife and young baby, to name just a few. How would my clients survive without me? I then realised that the cumulation of all these stressors was what had led me to where I was that day. My dad had covertly packed a bag for me and put it in his car before we left, so my excuse that I had no change of clothes didn’t cut it, either.

I was admitted to St Patrick’s Psychiatric Hospital in Dublin. They knocked me out for a week. Every time I woke up, I would get something to eat and a fistful of tablets or medicines to knock me out. This was, apparently, to reset my brain.

After a week, I was allowed home for a weekend to see how I would go in the social and family world. It went OK, so I returned to the hospital and was placed in a ward. I had my own small bedroom (like a cell), but everything else was communal. Sitting down to lunch that first day, I realised there were a lot of people in that ward who had been there a long time. Some of them were what I would call “tough characters”. I knew I had to establish my credentials, so at lunch the first day, when a nurse asked me if there was there anything I needed, I said, “Yes, I haven’t been given the wine list yet.” (There were a good few alcoholics on that ward). I said it in the straightest way I could. One of the really hardened individuals said, “Geez, you’re one of us.”

After a few days, I was allowed out with a contact, who took me to the movies and an early dinner. Because of the medication and everything that had happened, I was exhausted, so I went to bed early. I was in a deep sleep when I was woken by a male nurse telling me I had to take my sleeping tablets!

I was tired the next night, too, and wanted to go to bed early, so I went to the nurses’ station to see if I could get my sleeping tablets early. As I banged on the door, I was attacked from behind. A long-term patient, who was very strong, threw me against the wall at the other side of the corridor. His problem was that I was disturbing the nurses, who were his friends. A few other incidents like that led me to believe that if you went into a mental institution sane, you might come out insane. I went to the lectures and played the game, and was released a week later. I swore I would never let myself get into that position again, where I couldn’t cope with life.

Shortly after my hospital stay, the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, starring Jack Nicholson, was released. Many of my friends thought the movie had some highly amusing moments, but I couldn’t see one. For the past 45 years, I have made sure that every time I feel myself heading down the path of depression, I do something to prevent it. I have learned that it is even more important to act before you feel depression coming on. That’s why I exercise, read, meditate, and, for the past year or so, I have done yoga. Humour is another useful tool! Prevention is difficult (at the beginning), but when it becomes your modus operandi, it’s a lot cheaper and longer lasting than the cure.

I see many business owners under enormous stress. I do everything I can to help them realise that the business and commercial issues that trigger their symptoms do not last. In fact, most of them do not matter. That is why all my life since my hospital stay, I have used the services of mentors (some of whom are just good friends) to help me maintain a helicopter view of the world, so I can see what’s really going on, what matters and what doesn’t.

If I could gain access to the 1975 records of that hospital, I would be included in the statistics of admissions and discharges. Behind every statistic is a real person with a real story. Who near you has a story you do not know, but if you did, you might be able to help them? Remember, their families are also affected.

Depression affects different people in different ways. For some, like me, it can bring an almost paralysis of action. One cannot physically move; they are glued to the chair. During periods of physical illness, whether they were sporting injuries or normal medical events, I got a lot of sympathy because people could see what was wrong with me (bandages, bruises, crutches and limping, etc.). The problem with mental illness is that, usually, nobody knows we’re suffering. The symptoms aren’t always obvious; it’s not like we’re on crutches and can’t walk.

We need to reach out when we need help and to regularly check in on others in case they need help. R U OK Day is on 10th September this year, but don’t wait until then to reach out to someone you have not seen for a while.

If you are struggling yourself, please don’t feel you have to deal with it on your own. Go and talk with your GP, as they are the first port of call and will direct you, if appropriate, to other mental health professionals. There are other great organisations, such as Lifeline and Beyond Blue, you can turn to, as well.


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