By Helen Sweeney
Aware Defeat Depression has been at the forefront of tackling this often silent illness since it first opened its doors in Derry in 1996. During that time the charity has blossomed and is now recognised as one of the leading providers of help for mental health issues throughout Northern Ireland.
There are currently 21 support groups province wide where people can talk in a safe space, and they can be assured that they will be understood by those experiencing similar problems.
The charity’s vision has always been of a future where people can talk openly about their mental health and get access to the help that they need. This week the Journal spoke to the charity’s chief executive Siobhan Doherty who is hopeful that the realisation of that vision is not too far away....
“The stigma that exists around the illness is changing, definitely changing. I mean just look at the advertisement where the boxer is talking about his depression, how much more macho can you get than that,” said Siobhan.“That’s how we’ll break down barriers about how people view depression.
“But, I would say that people still find it difficult to come forward and speak about it initially. Look at the work the public health agencies have been doing, look at the celebrities coming forward and talking about the illness. I remember years ago if someone was diagnosed with cancer we used to whisper about the ‘Big C’. That’s totally changed now and we can change this too but we all have to work together.”
Aware offers a different approach to help in that it doesn’t offer individual counselling sessions and instead concentrates its resources in facilitating self help groups as well as life skills courses which aid in recovery from depression.
“That’s a common misconception about what we do,” said Siobhan. We don’t do counselling but we see amazing results from our groups. What happens in there is phenomenal, really powerful stuff. “People describe coming in to a group and feeling like they have been wrapped in cotton wool. For someone who is depressed and can be feeling lonely, isolated and really feel that they have no hope being in a room with people who fully understand can be a magical experience.
“Being with other people who understand what has and what is happening to you works and often people feel that they can tell a stranger things that they can’t tell family or friends. That’s because family members can get very worried and also the person might feel that if they tell someone close it will always be remembered by them even when they feel better.
“I’ve sat in on the groups and have seen some amazing examples of people reaching out to help one another. I was in a group in Magherafelt one night and one of the young men there was really struggling he just seemed to have lost all hope. An older man from the farming community leant across and said “here son take this, I’ve been thinking about how to help you all week’. What he had done was to write out everything that he had done to help himself in the last six months he had been at the group sessions. It was really touching to see someone go to those lengths to help out.
“Another misconception is that its all women who come to the groups. We were surprised to find after a survey done last year that in fact its mostly men who use the service which contradicts the idea that they find it difficult to seek help.”
While clients can be referred to Aware by their G Ps the charity’s structure works so well because people can simply come in and join a group. Added to that, the support groups are often run by those who have experienced and recovered from depression themselves.
“Someone who has experienced the illness is in a great place to help others,” said Siobhan. “We are meticulous in providing training and all of our staff our well supported and supervised and that’s because we want medical professionals to trust our judgement. We have a panel of experts including doctors and cognitive behavioural therapists who go through every piece of information literature we provide to ensure the highest possible standard of care.
“We would always say if you feel that you are experiencing depression, please see your GP and follow his or her instructions to the letter, particularly with regard to medication. Journalists often comment when they interview us that doctors hand out anti-depressants too readily but we always use the analogy that you wouldn’t not take medication if you were diagnosed with angina or you wouldn’t refuse insulin as a diabetic. Medication can have a very important part to play in recovery from depression. One off our clients recently put something on Facebook saying that the stigma around depression is being moved on to anti depressants instead.
“Knowing when to contact your doctor and actually realising that you are depressed is vital because its only then you can look for help.
“I would say broadly its when a low mood just doesn’t lift. This morning I could have got up in any sort of mood, I could be feeling really under the weather but it’s when that mood doesn’t lift that there could be a problem.
“Our Mood Matters programme, which we delivered into more than 400 schools last year helps to educate people, in particular young people on identifying the problem earlier, we are of the belief that prevention is better than cure.
“I have met someone recently who told my that they had been carrying the burden of depression around for 20 years and until they got help they didn’t know what was wrong with them. If one four people will experience the illness sometime in their life then that’s a lot of help that needs to be given and people need to know how and where to look for that.”
Aware Defeat Depression is based at 56 Strand Road Derry, BT48 7AJ. Telephone:
028 7126 0602.