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UCC student Cathal O'Reilly
UCC student Cathal O'Reilly
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Cathal: I’ve been to hell and back

FIRST time author, Cathal O’Reilly, has written a very honest book about depression entitled A Funny Thing About Depression.

The 28-year-old UCC student has experienced the condition and has been hospitalised. But now he is in a much better place and is completing his commerce degree.

“To get to this place, I have been to hell and back,” he says, having had suicidal thoughts and been wracked with guilt and anxiety.

Cathal, from Clonmel, is keen to share his experience in a personal and accessible way.

“What you’ll see in the book is that there’s no big talk about healthy eating or a healthy lifestyle or meditation. That wasn’t what really helped me. It’s more my outlook on life.”

This includes practising gratitude for what he has.

“I practise mindfulness a bit. It was part of my CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) so I had to do it as part of my homework. It was good in that it settled me a small bit.

“But when I was going through depression and anxiety, books on mindfulness didn’t really click with me at all. That’s just my experience.”

Looking back, Cathal says all his troubles came to the fore when he started university at 17. He describes himself as having been troublesome at school. He recalls drinking neat vodka from a litre-sized bottle at the age of 13, which made him very sick. Alcohol abuse led to blackouts and he was with a different girl every night. But Cathal had the cop-on to stop drinking and met “my first love”. However, he broke off the relationship after nine months and was to regret it every day for eight years.

After his third year at UCC, he chucked in his studies and started a hair and beauty products retail business in a premises on Oliver Plunkett Street in Cork. He was only 20, driving a BMW, while not being able to afford to pay himself a wage.

“The only experience I had was working in my family’s business. My business didn’t work out. I learned a lot about people’s behaviour and how to get on with people.”

He found it difficult to deal with banks and solicitors. However, Cathal is not a man who stands still. He sold alarms for a living, he started a degree in English and drama at UCD but it didn’t work out. Cathal was disappointed not to be accepted into the Gaiety School of Acting. But he dusted himself down, studied counselling and psychotherapy and says he’s interested in “doing something around mental health awareness”.

A Funny Thing About Depression by Cathal O'Reilly
A Funny Thing About Depression by Cathal O'Reilly

In terms of career plans, sports marketing is a possibility. He has worked in a gym and is interested in fitness, having been fanatical about it at one stage.

In his quest to heal himself, The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho was a big influence.

“It turned out that Paolo had been through a similar experience as myself in that he had been hospitalised around the same age as me. The crux of The Alchemist is that the author spent a lot of time travelling and searching for more meaning but at the end of the day, what he was looking for was right in front of him all the time.”

Like Coelho, Cathal is appreciative of the simple things in life and is not afraid to reach out for help and support when he needs it.

Being a mature student is not without its difficulties.

“Being that bit older, I don’t really have much interest in going out. I now drink very little. When I first started college, I surrounded myself with people who liked to drink. But it’s something I never really enjoyed. Now, it’s a social thing for a celebration and at Christmas time.”

By undergoing therapy, Cathal learned a lot about himself.

“I don’t think I was ready to recover until I met a CBT specialist, Paul Murphy. I’m still the same person that I was when I started my business. But I have more awareness now. Starting out in my business, I was a bit naive in my expectations.”

Now, when he thinks about mental health and illness, he compares it to physical illness.

“With any illness, a doctor would ask about the early signs. If you had a lump on your body, you wouldn’t say ‘ah, it’s only a lump. I’ll leave it alone.’ But when someone says they’re feeling a bit down, a lot of people say ‘shure we all feel a bit down.’

“No one is going to say they’re suffering from chronic anxiety and are in a dark place. No one is really ever that honest. But ‘feeling down’ should be taken seriously.”

Cathal believes that qualified mental health specialists, vetted by the HSE, should speak to fifth and sixth year secondary school pupils.

At primary school level, “a more delicate approach is needed. It’s not about telling students what to do and what not to do.”

It’s about opening up a conversation.

The last time Cathal was in a psychiatric hospital was three years ago.

“Because I’ve left the past behind, I’m no longer living with my failures,” he says. “It has taken time. In the book, I talk about time being the great healer.”

When asked if he has overcome depression, Cathal says: “It’s always knocking on the door — for anyone. It’s something you have to be aware of.

“For me, it’s something that had to happen. It doesn’t go away. I’m still taking medication for depression.

“For me, depression was a reaction to the environment I was in. I’m not in a position to comment on whether it can be due to a chemical imbalance as some people say.”

And as for opening up about his depression, Cathal doesn’t think it will go against him when he’s looking for work.

“We’re getting past the stage where depression is taboo,” he says.

“I don’t think we’re there yet. It needs to be treated the same way that any other illness is treated.”

A Funny Thing About Depression by Cathal O’Reilly is available on amazon.co.uk.

* Anyone affected by the topics raised in this article, or who is otherwise in need of support, is urged to contact The Samaritans on its Freephone number 116 123, text The Samaritans on 087-2609090, or call Pieta House on 1800-247247.