Andy O’Brien sparks Newstalk discussion on depression

2 Feb

Once again, the case of a high-profile sportsman who suffers from depression has brought the illness into the public domain. In the same week as the inquest into the sad death of Gary Speed, Leeds defender Andy O’Brien’s winning back of his first-team place after receiving treatment for depression sparked a discussion on Newstalk’s lunchtime programme yesterday.

Jonathan Healy talked to psychiatrist Brian Sweeney about practical steps to help those with depression, the concept of ‘mental fitness’ and Irish attitudes to the illness.

Practical advice

Dr Sweeney listed the following as signs that someone may be suffering from depression:

  • Sleep disturbance
  • Weight changes – generally weight gain
  • Loss of interest in activities usually enjoyed
  • Unusual reactive emotions eg anger
  • Strange thoughts
  • Odd behaviour eg over-drinking, withdrawing from people

If you suspect a close friend or family member of having depression, Dr Sweeney recommends as a first step simply having a good chat with the person to assess what help they may need. That help may involve talking to a GP or a counsellor or to a psychotherapist or psychologist.

Mental fitness and men with depression

With women more likely to be treated in hospital for psychological depression, Dr Sweeney explained that it’s simply part of the male psyche to be hardwired to suppress these responses. Instead of denying these emotions, men should realise that facing their emotional life is a sign of inner strength.

In Australia, where there has been a sustained effort across media to address the problem of depression, the suicide rate has fallen by 20 per cent in the last 15 years. A key to these efforts has been giving men, particularly vulnerable young men, easy access to counselling in places such as clubs and gyms that address depression in the context of overall mental fitness. Mental fitness involves addressing mental health in a similar way to physical health, whereby we accept that getting physical exercise is a necessary and positive thing.

Changing attitudes to depression in Ireland

In Ireland, which has yet to embrace this concept of mental fitness, stigma still surrounds depression and suicides continue to rise. This is despite the work of organisations such as Aware, which have been campaigning for years to encourage discussion about the illness.

Dr Sweeney explains that we need to accept that it is normal and natural to sometimes feel depressed and that it’s okay to go through times in our lives when we are highly stressed. There are ways of dealing with this – with the most useful approach being to share our problem with people. We need to normalise this aspect of our lives in Ireland. This approach need not cost more money but just requires a reallocation of resources. For example, in Australia, web-based systems are used to help people work through their depression.

Dr Sweeney mentioned that in the workplace, it is difficult for managers to deal with employees who suffer from depression – but we need to identify when people are genuinely unwell. The ultimate reaction of Leeds United to Andy O’Brien’s illness and Andy’s braveness in talking about his problem contribute to enouraging discussion and breaking down the stigma that sometimes surrounds depression.

Listen to the podcast of the interview here:


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