Mental illness was like a monster in my head, says young Cork woman

UCC student Shannen O’Reilly opens up to COLETTE SHERIDAN about her past mental health issues, and her fund-raising drive for Pieta House
Mental illness was like a monster in my head, says young Cork woman

Shannen O’Reilly, who has opened up about her mental health issues.

A UCC student has opened up about her mental health issues, likening them to a “monster in my head”, which was like someone dictating her behaviour.

At the height of her illness, Shannen O’Reilly of Bandon went from suffering severe anxiety to OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) as well as developing an eating disorder.

“I was obsessed with making sure that my family and friends were safe,” says the second year student in early years and childhood studies.

“At night, I’d make sure all the doors were locked. I’d be constantly checking the doors and the windows, and seeing that the taps were turned off. It was all about safety. I’d be texting my friends at night to see if they were OK.”

Now, having undergone CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), Shannen is in a much better place and has set up a GoFundMe campaign in aid of Pieta House.

This support centre for people in crisis with their mental health issues had to postpone its annual ‘Darkness into Light’ walk because of Covid-19. Shannen is encouraging people to upload a picture of themselves in their happy place instead.

To take part, users simply upload a picture that makes them happy, captioning it ‘My Happy Place.’ People can then choose to donate to Shannen’s campaign with details on her Facebook page and Instagram account.

At 16, Shannen didn’t take much notice of her growing anxiety, thinking it was a normal part of being an adolescent. But it got worse.

“I got to the stage where I wasn’t eating or sleeping. I had no energy. I couldn’t get up in the morning. I wouldn’t go to school and in turn, I wasn’t reaching my full potential.

“I felt like a complete failure. I felt worthless. I kept blaming myself for everything and began to distance myself from my family.

“As the eldest of four, I considered myself a bad role model for my siblings. I had borderline anorexia.”

However, despite pulling back from her family, they ultimately saved her. 

“They were broken from watching me. They couldn’t bear to see me the way I was. They had to do something and they gave me so much love and support. I was taken to the GP who referred me to a psychologist.

Shannen and boyfriend Harry — who helped her through her problems.
Shannen and boyfriend Harry — who helped her through her problems.

“At the start, I was against this. I didn’t like opening up to the psychologist. I felt there was no way to fix my problems.”

Shannen found the CBT sessions a slow process. 

“But then, one day, things clicked for me. The psychologist opened my eyes when she said she’d have to send me to St John of God in Dublin for weeks or months. I immediately thought this couldn’t happen. I didn’t want to be away from my family.

“So I decided I was going to change and make my family’s life easier. I started co-operating with the psychologist. Then, one day, I had a bit of belief in myself which got me to where I am today. I started working better and sleeping better as well as exercising and meditating. I repeated fifth year. My parents felt that was the best decision. I did much better in my subjects and realised I’m not as bad as I thought I was.

“When you’re at your lowest, you feel you are worthless. But as soon as you open up to people and talk to them, it’s the best thing.”

Shannen’s psychologist suggested her anxiety could be traced back to when her grandmother died from cancer. Shannen was ten at the time. She was afraid of people getting hurt and the idea of people dying disturbed her.

“My mum had always said that when I was young, I always wanted to make others feel better. I’d never think of myself. I wanted to make others happy. The psychologist got through to me and said I never got to make myself happy. So I started doing things for me, like exercise.”

A friend of Shannen, who is involved with the Rose of Tralee, put her forward for the Cork Rose selection, Shannen didn’t think she had the confidence to take part.

Shannen O'Reilly with her dog.
Shannen O'Reilly with her dog.

But with her friend’s encouragement and her promise that Shannen would be guaranteed fun, she went for it. “It gave me so much confidence, just speaking in front of people. I made so many friends. Once I got talking, I realised that so many others have problems like me.”

Shannen says that she used to constantly compare herself to others.

“All my school mates were naturally thin. In my head, I was thinking that once I’d lose the weight, I’d be like them. At my lowest weight, I was just under eight stone — and I’d be broad-boned.”

However, her mother, whom she describes as “my rock”, helped her to overcome her eating disorder. 

“She constantly made sure I was eating and she got all my friends at school involved. They had to watch me eat my lunch. I was never left alone. But they were discreet. They helped me as much as they could. They would accompany me to the toilet.” Shannen never developed bulimia.

Now, her OCD tendencies can still be triggered in certain situations but it’s nothing like what it was.

Describing herself as “a massive worrier”, Shannen says she is learning to keep her worries at bay. She takes medication for anxiety and tries not to over think.

Her advice to anyone with mental health problems is to “just talk to someone”.

She adds: Tell them how you’re feeling. Professional help is very important also.”

Clearly, Shannen has seen the light.


If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article, call the Samaritans on their free confidential 24/7 helpline on 116-123. You can email j o @ s a m a r i t a n s . i e

Or contact Pieta House National Suicide Helpline on 1800 247 247 or text HELP to 51444.

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