Age-old stereotypes have often surrounded mental health illnesses, particularly depression; that happy, successful people couldn’t possibly be depressed; that only adverse life events like bereavement or money issues cause depression; that depression isn’t a ‘real illness’; and that people who are depressed are ‘mentally weak’.
Jennifer Barry is best known for her role as Siobhán Walsh in The Young Offenders. The 19-year-old actress lives in Kilbrittain and has been involved in amateur dramatics since she was a little girl.
Aged 16, she began working on sitcom. To the outside world, her life seemed perfect. But Jennifer was battling with depression.
She said: “People created in their heads a perfect life for me. But, that’s not the case. I have a brilliant life and I am very happy now but, last year, it didn’t feel like the perfect life. It was a really horrible way of living. It got so bad that I didn’t want to live.”
Last year, Jennifer’s mental health started to deteriorate. She started to lose weight. She didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning and stopped going to school for a while.
“It got to the point where I needed serious help. It was a proper illness.”
Without getting help, she says, she “wouldn’t have survived”.
She knew something wasn’t right because she had a panic attack at school. She also didn’t want to celebrate her 18th birthday and had no interest in marking this milestone with friends and family. After having a panic attack at school, her parents helped her find a counsellor to talk to.
“I didn’t take notice of the early signs. My advice to young people is that as soon as you notice that something isn’t quite right, get it checked.”
She started taking medication, as well as attending psychotherapy sessions. She also found that talking to others really helped in her recovery, as well as exercising regularly and eating a well-balanced diet and getting enough sleep.
As a result of her experiences, Jennifer is keen to become an advocate for mental health, in particular the mental health and wellbeing of teens.
This month she started a blog, called ‘Jen B’s Journey’, dealing with mental health and self-care topics — with plans for a podcast in future. As well as that, she is taking part in Teen Talk; Gen Z.
Teen Talk; Gen Z are events coordinated by Cork County Council, dealing with issues affecting teenagers. The events aim to support teenagers, parents and teachers as they navigate the teenage years together, promoting effective communication between teenagers and adults, as well as providing information on resources available to teenagers to help them with challenging and troubling issues.
Guest speakers include Mindfulness Coach Graham McCormack; Winner of 2019 ‘Special Forces Hell week’, Grace O’Rourke; Performance Psychologist, Gerry Hussey, and it is hosted by Virgin TV broadcaster Elaine Crowley, from Cork.
Jennifer will share her personal health struggles at the events and explain how she overcame them. She said she wanted to become involved in Teen Talk because “talking saves lives”.
“I struggled with depression. After going through that, I think that people who are going through it as well feel that the best way to open up about it is to hear other people talk about it.
“I don’t have depression anymore. But I do suffer from anxiety at the moment. I struggle with anxiety on a daily basis. That is something that I am learning to deal with. I am getting help for that. It’s not something that goes away straight away. It takes a long time but if you keep believing that you will get better and work with it, then things will get better.”
When someone feels they are struggling with low mood, depression or anxiety, picking the low hanging fruit, such as eating healthily, getting enough sleep, or going out for a walk, can be the first steps towards recovering. Jennifer said she made sure to do these things for herself, as well as getting professional help.
“Getting off your phone and spending more time with friends also helps but it’s so important to seek help from a professional and talk through things if you can.”
Thankfully, words like mindfulness, wellbeing and self-care are becoming regular in our society’s vocabulary, a huge shift from years gone by when talking about one’s mental health was a taboo subject.
“The more people talk about it, the better,” said Jennifer.
“We have to take care of ourselves and our mental health. The world is changing and there is a lot of pressure on young people.
“The more we talk about it, the less of a problem it will be because people will know how to get help and people will be able to help each other.”
It is a great move forward that the dialogue surrounding mental illness and mental health issues has changed. More and more young people are willing to engage in an open and honest dialogue about mental health challenges and practical things they can do to ensure they look after their mental health and wellbeing.
Parents and adults can help young people deal with mental health issues by listening more. Jennifer thinks that adults should engage more in conversations with teenagers about the topic of mental health and “really listen, not just say things like, ‘get off your phone and you’ll be grand’. They should open up more to us and we can then open up more to them.”
She said: “When you hear older people saying ‘this was never a problem in my day’, it almost makes you feel guilty. You start to wonder what’s wrong with you and why you are thinking the way you do.”
Visibility of young people’s lives via social media is a factor that requires discussion in relation to teenage mental health. This will be addressed during the Teen Talk; Gen Z seminars.
Jennifer said: “Social media can be great. It is a great way to connect with people and a great way to learn new things but you have to make sure you are safe online. You have to be careful about what you say to others and what you say about yourself online. If you read a bad comment about yourself, it can knock you over. People would never say things to your face but they feel comfortable saying things online.
“We can’t just blame social media for this [mental health issues amongst teenagers] but it is a contributor.”
Jennifer offers the following advice to teenagers who are worried about their mental health,
“Talk to anyone, to your parents, your friends, your family, to your neighbour. Go to your GP straight away if you feel that something’s not right.
“Open up. Don’t let it bottle up inside you because the more you bottle things up, the worse it’s going to get.”
As to what the future holds for Jennifer — a third series of The Young Offenders is on the way; it’s already been filmed. She’s currently enjoying lots of auditions and planning on going to study at UCC next year.
Teen Talk places can be reserved free of charge through EventBrite (GenZ). Events take place on Thursday, March 26 in Charleville; Tuesday, March 31 in Little Island; and Thursday, April 2, in Bantry. All events are coordinated by Cork County Council and funded by Healthy Ireland through the Local Community Development Committees and Pobal.
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