Gildernew: my battle with depression

Published: 15 Nov 2012 13:000 comments

FERMANAGH and South Tyrone MP Michelle Gildernew has spoken for the first time about her battle with depression and how being asked by her party to stand aside both as MLA in the assembly and as chairperson of the health committee has had an impact on her mental health.

Michelle Gildernew.

"You try and put your best face on you. There were times when I had to muster up the strength to go and see a constituent, go to a meeting, because that's what was expected of you. It took all your energy to get dressed and get out the door. In the middle of it all you were dealing with other people's problems as well as your own. There were many days I didn't feel like going out the door."

In a deeply emotional interview with The Impartial Reporter, Ms Gildernew broke down in tears on several occasions as she recalled the moments she felt "like I couldn't cope with the world outside". The politician says she first experienced bouts of depression 20 years ago; first when she broke her ankle and felt detached from the world and secondly when her beloved grandmother passed away.

"I had broken my ankle playing football and losing my independence overnight was really tough. One day you could jump in the car and go wherever you wanted and the next day you are relying on someone else to take you. That's where my commitment to rural transport schemes comes from. My grandmother died around the same time, so just a number of things happened in my life and I couldn't cope," said a tearful Ms Gildernew, who admits she "didn't recognise the signs".

"I didn't know there was something wrong, nor did the people who knew me best. I knew I was tearful, emotional, irritable and very tired. Every day was a struggle, every day. You didn't know if you had the energy to get through the day. If I was living alone it would have been far worse. I had my family who would say: 'You are not lying in bed all day' when I probably would have."

She didn't visit her doctor because she didn't think there was anything wrong with her and it took several months before she realised that she wasn't coping and "things were getting on top of me". It was only when Ms Gildernew spoke to a friend of hers, who had suffered from depression, that she realised that she too was suffering from mental health problems. She then seeked advice from her GP.

But her mental health problems have surfaced again in recent times.

Clearly emotional, she added: "Breaking my leg in January this year was a catalyst and the isolation issue surfaced again. I went to my GP and she understood the trauma that I suffered wasn't just physical. She was concerned. She said to me: 'Get yourself out of the house, go for a walk, don't hide away'. I felt really low.

"I had to be there for the people I represented but you know something: I needed people too. I needed to be needed. Sometimes you just need to say: 'I am going to stay at home and make buns with my children' and that's what I did."

Then earlier this year came two blows to her political career when she was asked to give up the jobs she adored so much -- chairperson of the health committee and her seat at Stormont.

"Giving up the chair of the health committee wasn't my decision and yes, that probably did have an impact (on her mental health). I was also in the DEL (Department of Employment and Learning) committee and hadn't a lot of help. I would have preferred at the time to have got the help and support I needed to keep going, but I would have been putting off the inevitable. In the long-term it was probably best for me and my family."

On leaving Stormont, Ms Gildernew admitted her last day "was like a wake" but said she was hopeful that it would "turn out for the best".

"Our last day was really tough, it was like a wake; people were calling in from other parties, my own staff members. You couldn't take two steps without someone saying; 'We'll be sorry to see you go; it definitely was a bit of an emotional roller-coaster.

"I miss the structure of Stormont. I was there for 14 years and there was a routine, I do miss that. I am always an optimist and I am hoping that this will turn out for the best. If I hadn't fallen in January and broken my leg then suddenly being chair of the health committee one week and then being told; 'You're out of here' would have been harder for me. I think, mentally, it helped prepare me for leaving the assembly in June."

There is no denying that it has been a difficult time in Fermanagh recently with a number of tragic deaths, something that has upset Ms Gildernew.

"I have always had a difficulty leaving my problems at the door. When the children are in bed at night I go back on the computer and go through e-mails and I find it really hard. When the people you represent see you as the only way out you just have to find a way of dealing with them and parking your own problems, it upsets me. The recent suicides here was heartbreaking. The past few months have been very tough on the people of Fermanagh."

The politician believes the community as a whole "must work harder" in breaking up the stigma of mental health problems, particularly depression.

"We must work at teaching all of us, adults included, about building resilience and coping skills and about how to recognise the symptoms in yourself and going for help. We need to get rid of the stigma: one of four people are affected by mental health in their lifetime -- that is 25 per cent of people. If we continue to brush it under the carpet then that could become one in three, or one in two. I am OK, I will be OK, but a lot of people out there are not and they need to speak to someone."

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