I’m proud to put a face on mental health

The duo behind a mental health project, Da Silly Heads, talk to DEBORAH HICKEY about their journey so far, sharing their mental healthy journeys in a bid to help others, and their plans for the future
I’m proud to put a face on mental health

IT ALL STARTÉD ON CAMPUS: Daniel O’Mahony and Michal Sikora, CIT students, with their business Da Silly Heads at the 2019 Student Inc. Programme Showcase, which was held at Pairc Uí Chaoimh, where 30 student entrepreneurs were congratulated on successfully completing the Student Inc. Programme at Cork Instute of Technology, University College Cork and Tralee Institute of Technology. Picture: Brian Lougheed

“THE instant I took a chance and opened up about my illness, the tide started to change. We use words every day, but I will never take words for granted again. Think of talking, and the words you use, as a sort of protein for your mental health. When you talk, you start the process of building a stronger mind and allowing yourself room to heal.”

Daniel O’ Mahony first started to experience mental illness as a teenager. He was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) while still in school, and was prescribed SSRI medication.

In his early twenties, Daniel’s illness revealed a new, more distressing, chapter. He began to experience intrusive thoughts around his physical health. These thoughts would lead to periods of despair, lasting up to six weeks.

Daniel would seek constant reassurance from those around him, and repeated GP visits, that he was not suffering from a life- threatening condition.

In 2015, while studying Sport, Exercise and Performance in Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa, Daniel met fellow student, Michal Sikora. The young men had a great deal in common and instantly clicked.

VISUALLY DRIVEN MESSAGE: Daniel O’Mahony and Michal Sikora, founders of Da Silly Heads. Picture: Mick Collins
VISUALLY DRIVEN MESSAGE: Daniel O’Mahony and Michal Sikora, founders of Da Silly Heads. Picture: Mick Collins

They both shared a passion for physical activity, nutrition and other topics related to their studies. Both had previously worked in retail and the business to business sector.

Both Daniel and Michal had previously dropped out of college due to mental health issues, isolation or lack of commitment to education. The two mature students found that sharing experiences of their own mental health journeys, with each other, helped.

They now are reaching out and helping others, by instigating and encouraging conversation around mental health issues.

Daniel and Michal wanted to share their own struggles and triumphs surrounding mental health, life traumas and isolation, so that others may be encouraged to speak about their own experiences. In 2018, they launched a forward-thinking project entitled Da Silly Heads. The project specialises in the design and delivery of a portfolio of high impact, engaging and quirky wellbeing events and advocacy apparel.

“The events that we construct at Da Silly Heads are centred around several pillars to create impact, value and a lasting impression on attendees.

“We begin all events with a high impact opener to signify that Da Silly Heads are in town.”

In March of this year, Da Silly Heads held their pilot event: ‘Stigma is Silly,’ on CIT campus, where both Daniel and Michal are currently in their fourth year studying Business (Honours).

The two-day event incorporated everything Da Silly Heads stand for. It opened with a powerful visual to attract attention and promote conversation.

“130 amazing volunteers kick started the event in a truly unique way — a flash mob. This involved putting on black surgical masks bearing the word ‘STIGMA’ and dispersing to all pàrts of the campus, making a visual statement of how one’s life can be silenced due to stigma.”

A typical event for the project involves a range of activities, guest speakers and entertainment. Daniel and Michal discuss their own stories and what they found beneficial to cope in their working and social lives while living with mental illness. Events are delivered in a casual, couch-chat type setting.

“This setting is key to what we do. We design a sensory experience, within the event space, focusing on colour, visuals, aromas, taste and sound. We create a relaxed experience while being educated and empowered at the same time.

“Attendees will then be given a self-help tool kit, which includes our mental health advocacy merchandise, with the goal of promoting peer to peer conversation.”

Visual impact plays a significant role in the delivery of Da Silly Heads’ message. The project enlists the help of five cartoon characters in order to help externalize mental health experiences in a colourful, quirky and engaging way. Four of the characters depict a mental health condition: Anxiety, OCD, Depression and Bipolar Mood Disorder.

SHARING THEIR PERSONAL STORIES: Michal Sikora and Daniel O’ Mahony of Da Silly Heads.
SHARING THEIR PERSONAL STORIES: Michal Sikora and Daniel O’ Mahony of Da Silly Heads.

“Our fifth character is depicted as a brain-like character and represents the sufferer — a central character in relatable storylines we construct for our Instagram platform. The characters are, in fact, our Silly Heads.

“What we mean by that is that we acknowledge their presence but they will never define us or our abilities so in essence they are just our Silly Heads.”

Visual impact continues through Da Silly Heads’ product range, which are aimed not only to be functional but to act as conversation starters. The project’s first product, Da Silly Bobble Hat, comes with a detachable bobble to change colour depending on the wearer’s preference or mood, and contains subtle advocacy message at the rear: ‘Stigma Free Head.’

A second message is contained inside the hat which reads, ‘Our Heads Matter.’

“It is by adding such features and strategic colour tones, that we see our products being that spark, for peer to peer dialogue, within our communities.”

While Da Silly Heads project started on the CIT campus, and is proving very engaging for students, Daniel and Michal are quick to point out that mental illness can affect anyone at any time.

With this in mind, they intend to extend their campaigns, not only into other third level institutions, but into the workplace also.

The project proves beneficial to businesses who may be looking for a fresh approach to engaging their staff in areas such as mental health advocacy, inclusion and self-help

Such an approach can benefit employees who may be at risk of chronic stress, prolonged absenteeism and diluted productivity stemming from mental health struggles. The earlier an individual feels able to talk about mental health issues, the better however.

“We always say in order for this project to move forward it must go backwards, meaning a jump from third level back to second level and constructing highly engaging campaigns and events combating specific social issues within that environment.”

Positive Mind & Body Week takes place in November, on CIT campus, during which Daniel and Michal will showcase their current campaign, ‘Our Heads Matter’.

The campaign focuses on advocacy and inclusivity and, like all the project’s events, will be laid out in a visually appealing way. Life size cardboard images of their five cartoon characters always prove popular for photographic opportunities.

“We will be selling our hats (Da Silly Bobble Hats) at all events to raise funds for the 2020 Mental Health Initiative being held at CIT.”

Da Silly Heads characters.
Da Silly Heads characters.

The 2020 initiative will see Da Silly Heads magnify the previous ‘Stigma is Silly’ campaign.

“The culmination of this event will see a one day bespoke event on campus for students, but on a grander scale than our pilot event. Details will be announced before Christmas, watch this space.”

Da Silly Heads stress that they are not professionally trained in the area of coping mechanisms surrounding mental health. They relay their own experiences and what works well for them.

Daniel and Michal credit physical activity as a huge factor in maintaining emotional wellness. They mention meditation and mindfulness as well as reducing screen time, particularly in preparation for sleeping.

“Sleep is one of the most underappreciated resources in keeping well. Having good sleep hygiene has so many positive impacts on a person’s day to day activities.”

They also stress that staying as socially connected as possible is crucial,

“If it’s just that one friend, family member or colleague you meet, once a week for a chat, then work to keep that consistent.”

Daniel recalls days where his condition was so severe, he could not even turn in the bed, let alone get out of it.

“Battling a mental illness is a full-time, unpaid, poorly rewarded job that needs to be given as much attention as physical wellbeing. Would I change anything? Absolutely not. This is me, this is what I am.

“My mental illness has motivated me to become a co-founder of this mental health project. Today I am proud to be putting a face on mental health.”

Those interested in learning more about Da Silly Heads Project can find more information and details of upcoming events on www.dasillyheads.com, instagram.com/dasillyheads, and www.facebook.com/dasillyheads/

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