Updated: Jul 8, 2021
Losing someone you love is one of the most challenging experiences any of us can and will face at some point in our lives. Losing a loved one by suicide can be even more difficult, as Daragh from Cork experienced when his best friend died by suicide when he was 17. This loss motivated Daragh to normalise the chat around mental health in his friend's memory.
Having had first-hand experience of poor mental health himself, Daragh, 26, has bravely agreed to share his story to help me shine a light on men's mental health and the importance of getting help and support.
When did you start to notice you were struggling with your mental health?
It was hard to know for a long time whether I was struggling or not because I was so caught up in grief. When I was 17, my best friend died by suicide. This was the first time I learned about mental health and what poor mental health can result in. It’s a harrowing thought still that so many people only learn about mental health once tragedy strikes, but it’s a stark reality.
The years pushed on, and we did our best to move on with them. But it can be hard when there’s trauma involved, and when the death is tragic. It doesn’t feel right to move on and I suppose I never really allowed myself to, in a sense. I just found a way to ignore the feelings and to numb myself from them. I became numb to all emotion until I couldn’t really feel anything. I went on like this for a long time.
It wasn’t until I had a panic attack (my first and most intense one) during the second year of my undergraduate degree that I knew there was something wrong. In the aftermath of it, I finally admitted to myself that there were things I hadn’t dealt with. I knew I was emotionally numb and lonely, and in depressive lows more than I wasn’t. It took me coming to breaking point to finally admit it to myself, but when I did, I sought help in the form of counselling and I began to repair a lot of damage I had neglected to fix.
The worst of it was not being able to feel anything. I remember having to almost fake emotional reactions to placate other people. If something good happened to me, I’d know they’d expect me to be excited or happy, so I feigned this emotion in order to hide how numb I was really feeling inside. It takes a lot of work to to break through this barrier, and sometimes even now I struggle to emote. The difference between now and then is that I know, and I actively try, to work on myself rather than pretend there’s no issue.
What did this experience teach you?
I suppose, in essence, my experience with mental struggles taught me about myself. It showed my limitations, my flaws, my blind-spots. I learned how destructive being emotionally numb to everything can be, and how lonely you can become as a result. I learned that I was stigmatising myself, and pretending there was nothing wrong when there was.
But I also learned some really empowering lessons too. I learned how resilient I am, and how compassionate I can be toward myself. Struggling with depression and anxiety, and then overcoming these struggles, gifts you with the ability to overcome so much adversity. A weakness suddenly becomes a strength, and this is when you can share your new-found resilience with others. I wouldn’t be as passionate about mental health today had I not gone through my own tribulations, and I really can’t imagine my life being any different. Being able to help other people work through their own daily struggles is one of the great joys of my life.
So in summary, my mental health struggles taught me about who I am, and for that I am grateful.
What do you do differently now to protect your mental health?
I’m much more aware of my mental state now. I can sense when I’m slipping into a low, and I can feel when anxiety is creeping up too. This comes with experience and understanding, I think. The more I learn about myself, the better I am at gauging where I am mentally. So the thing I do now which I didn’t do before is work on the relationship I have with myself.
I like to emphasize the importance of mental health routines, too. These are simple things we can do every day to ease our minds. In the same way that we have physical health routines – exercising daily, getting enough sleep, eating right etc. – we can also have mental routines. The great thing is that both of these overlap in a lot of ways.
My mental health routine is a check list consisting of getting enough sleep, enough water, enough good food, enough facetime with friends, enough exercise, and finding time to read or be still during the day. If I can nail these down, I usually maintain a consistent mental state. If I do all of these things and I still feel off, then I know more investigation is needed, and so the routine also acts as alarm system for my mental health.
I’m far more disciplined with my mental wellbeing now, and that has made all the difference.
What have been some of the most helpful things people have done to support you with your mental health?
In this regard, I have been really lucky, and it is not something I take for granted. My family and friends have never made me feel unsupported. Even during times when I was reluctant and afraid to talk (as is a common symptom with depression) I never felt like there was no one to listen to me. My tribe has always allowed me to be myself, without judgement, and this has been fundamental. If I were to suggest any sort of advice it would be to allow people to be who they are – both the good and the weird parts – without making them feel bad about it. Having the freedom to talk openly is something not everyone has, and so if you can be that person for someone you are doing a really important thing.
People lending an ear, without necessarily having the answers, can’t be over-emphasised. Myself and my close friends routinely check in and tell each other we’re feeling bad or anxious or sad. Even being able to say those things in a group chat was unheard of when my friend died, particularly for men. By talking about our own mental health openly, it encourages other young men to do the same, and in this way it feels like there is less stigma surrounding men’s mental health.
And what have been some unhelpful things people have done to support you with your mental health?
As I mentioned, I’ve been very lucky with the support I’ve been given by my family and circle of friends, so it’s tricky to say whether any of them have been unsupportive.
In wider society, however, there have been some unhelpful attitudes which hinder our ability, as men, to talk openly about our mental health struggles. There’s an expectation for men to be quiet, unfeeling and unbending. I used to be unfeeling in a lot of ways - sometimes I still am – and this mindset is more destructive than it is useful.
In the modern era, and specifically online, there is a lot of men-bashing. This ‘all men are trash’ rhetoric is rampant in a community that simultaneously calls for people to ‘Be Kind’. It’s challenging, and sometimes impossible to ignore these attitudes.
Men are three times more likely to die by suicide. You can’t ignore the role these attitudes might play in how men view themselves. If you are struggling and need help but are constantly bombarded by a rhetoric which suggests you are ‘bad’ for simply existing, it’s easy to see why you might feel helpless.
I think, as a community, we need to do better in how we address the topic of men’s mental health. We can’t call for men to talk openly about their struggles but then turn around and tell them they are wrong for how they feel. We can’t ask men to be vulnerable and then bully and cajole them for doing exactly that. In this sense, we have an awfully long way to go, but we’re moving in the right direction.
What advice would you give any men reading this who are struggling to get help?
Ignore the voice telling you that you should not feel the way you are feeling. We all have this voice. It’s the voice which also tells you that you should not cry, or that you just need to get over yourself. This voice lies to us and, as men, I think we listen to it far too often.
I think the best thing men can do for themselves is understand that we do have emotions and we are entitled to feel them. It doesn’t make you any less of a man to feel your feelings. It baffles me that we got to a point where society expects men to be non feeling and unaffected all the time. It’s neither realistic nor helpful.
I promise you that you will feel so much better if you talk to even one person about how you feel. It doesn’t even have to be this colossal conversation. It can be casual and comfortable. Pick one person you trust and have a conversation about how you’ve been feeling. Really and genuinely reflect on what has made you anxious, or sad, or frustrated this week and let it all out. You don’t need to tell the world, but you do need to let it out.
I’m a man whose previously been caught in the belief that I am not ‘allowed’ to struggle, and that it is un-manly to have emotions. Now I’m still a man, but I no longer believe these things, and I’m better for it.
Across your lifespan you will hear other men, and even women, say awful things about men who are open and vulnerable and comfortable with their emotions. It comes with the territory. My advice to you is to not only ignore these voices, but to understand that these sentiments are coming from people who are also struggling and hurting, who have problems of their own which they may not be dealing with. They may be taking out their frustrations on you, as a man, because it’s a low hanging fruit. If we can understand that this is what is going on, we can rise above it and move on.
Just because someone says something about you, doesn’t make it true – in fact in most cases it’s the furthest thing from true.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to better support men with their mental health?
The key thing to be aware of, which is often brushed over, is that men and women are different, and therefore have different needs. Men and women are affected differently by various issues and so, how mental health problems manifest in each gender won’t be the same across the board.
There is still a lot of shame attached to being vulnerable for men. I see this all the time – men who are struggling but feel they cannot open up, or that they are weak for having such issues. Not only does it sometimes feel like the world doesn’t appreciate men, but men also carry a lot of resentment towards themselves for struggling with their mental health.
Women seem to be more comfortable with talking about how they feel. For whatever reason it comes more naturally. So the best support one could give to a man who is going through something is patience. Allowing them the time to articulate their feelings is important.
As well as this, in today’s world there seems to be a war on masculinity and I think this wreaks havoc on male mental health. There is nothing inherently bad about masculinity but somehow it feels like there is in today’s era. A great support for men would be for them to know there are people around them who don’t associate masculinity with negative connotations.
Masculinity is often, but not always intertwined with, a person’s maleness, and so it’s an important part of a person’s identity. We would never imply there is an issue with femininity so we shouldn’t do that for masculinity either.
Follow Daragh's page, ThoughtsTooBig, on Instagram for more mental health advice and thoughts.