Musician and mental health campaigner urges students to take off their masks and “be who you want to be” by Caitríona Mc Bride
Picture Niall Breslin in college. Handsome, popular, girls falling at his feet, as at ease on the rugby or GAA pitch as playing the guitar in the middle of a crowded party. Except the reality was the exact opposite. Bressie, as we know him, often struggled to get out of bed when he was a student at UCD on a sports scholarship studying for a degree in commerce.
“I was very unwell in college and had severe anxiety issues, and I think a lot of students do,” says the musician and mental health campaigner.
“I wish I would have enjoyed it more. I dropped out the first year and deferred. I just wasn’t in the right headspace for it.
“I think our third-level system is not set up to help (students) enough. As well as that, students need to understand how important peer-to-peer social support is . . . to be aware of the people around you, be aware of your colleagues, your friends, whoever you have started developing relationships with.
“Just understand that peer support is massively beneficial for people who might be struggling.”
Breslin says it is important to remember that college students may struggle to cope, so it is crucial that they seek help – and can access it – when they are vulnerable.
‘Follow the course’
“Some people might have already been struggling through school,” he says, “then have to go off to college because ‘that’s what people do’. That is the way Ireland works. You just follow these courses that people set out for you . . . you finish school so you just go to college, whereas some people don’t want to, or aren’t ready to go.”
Because of what he himself experienced, the mental health of students is important to Bressie. “Students in third-level institutions are the forgotten generation.Unfortunately, it’s where they need most help.”
Some people still feel ashamed and scared when it comes to opening up about mental health issues. Bressie is disarming in how candid he is about his own struggles. The type of guy you’d assume has sailed through life has had crippling anxiety. But he has learned to empower himself and inspires others to do the same. He says he wishes he had taken off his “mask” a lot sooner in college.
“If I was a student now I would have a total re-evaluation of how I lived,” he says. “I was on a sports scholarship, so I didn’t really have the same student experience as a lot of people. But I would have absolutely looked at a strategy around cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
“I would have been much more proactive with therapy, and I wouldn’t have cared what people thought of me. I would have not been wearing the mask I wore for my entire student time.
“I’d urge students to try and find a group where you can take your mask off, be who you want to be. If you are struggling with something, don’t repress that. Because it will eat you alive. It will keep coming at you, so engage with it.”
While the glorious liberation in becoming a student and tasting freedom is delicious and exciting, Breslin advises students to do something for their heads during their college days.
“Investing in your mind is probably the most important thing you will do when you go to college. And I don’t mean education and learning, I mean actually figuring out your values, what you are, who you are, how your head works. And obviously have fun. Go out and party and do all that type of stuff, but do something for your head as well.
“Pick up mindfulness, maybe, try it. That will help you. That will be your biggest friend when you come into exams and everyone else is completely collapsing with stress. Invest in it.”
Breslin becomes particularly passionate when talking about mental health and feels insulted by how the Irish Government has addressed it in general, as well as in third-level institutions.
We need to “understand that mental health issues can happen to anyone, anybody,” he says.
“Do not accept how our government treat people and how our government are dealing with it, it’s unacceptable. It’s the worst in Europe, by a mile, and we are treating our people with such contempt and I personally am deeply insulted by how the government treat mental health.”
“There is a lot more awareness and there are a lot of brilliant colleges doing great things. But in terms of the systems and in terms of the support systems coming from government for third level, and from third level itself, not enough money is being invested in counselling. Because, without being morbid, but you just have to look at the suicide rate amongst students. It is incredibly high. What we do well in Ireland when it comes to social issues is putting our heads in the sand and ignoring them and pretending they don’t exist. They do. Either we deal with them or we ignore them, they are our options.
“As individuals, one of the biggest things you can do as a student is create a culture of openness amongst each other, it could be a group of three of you or a hundred, it doesn’t matter, but create that leadership, show your social ability.”
Breslin is involved with the An Post Cycle series and this is his third year as an ambassador. He says he loves cycling not only for the benefits for his physical and mental health, but also the social side of it.
“I love cycling, it’s my favourite activity. I think it’s incredibly social. I think I’ve learned more about people in three hours on a bike than I have in years of sitting in pubs. I think the An Post cycle works because it is not that competitive, anyone can do it, it’s a bit of fun . . . and it’s incredibly good for the head.”
Not the answer for everyone
However, Breslin is quick to highlight is that though exercise is one thing that helps him with both physical and mental health, it is not the answer for everyone.
“Fitness is a building block, it is important that I point out that it certainly isn’t the answer. People have this perception of me that I think ‘oh run a marathon and it will cure depression’ and that really pisses me off because I am so aware of that. Exercise is absolutely not the solution, it could potentially be part of it. I think sport is incredible but don’t use it as your only tool of recovery or coping, combine it.”
Student life beckons for Breslin again as he is going back to college to do a masters in psychotherapy. “Unfortunately, it won’t be this year but hopefully it will be sooner rather than later. Psychotherapy massively interests me. How our brains actually work and understanding the various forms of issues that people could have, the tools you can use to help, I think it’s very exciting, psychotherapy is massively exciting for me.”
However, he isn’t making a total career change just yet.
“I don’t think I will ever go into psychotherapy as a professional but I want to write about it more, I want to be able to write without having to put it through people. The credential side of things is more important to me – that I can back up what I talk about with research-based facts.”
For those students who are worried or struggling, Breslin advises them to reach out. “Talking is massively helpful. I think it is important to look at talking to a professional because they will give you the tools to not just talk, but to build.
“Don’t look at therapy or counselling as an admission of failure or as something of weakness, it is the opposite, it is actually an indication of strength. Look at it like if you had a sore knee, you would go to a physio. This is what they do, don’t expect to be fixed in 15 minutes, it takes time. Invest in it, believe in it.”
Keeping his mask on
Hiding how he really felt and keeping his mask on was what Breslin found the most difficult thing of all.
“For 15 years of my life, it was never my depression or anxiety disorder that was impossible to cope with, it was hiding it all the time that was the hardest part.
“It was the mask, the excuses I had to make, the walking off stage in the middle of songs, the climbing through toilet windows when I was out having a pint with my mates, not turning up, not getting out of my bed for weeks pretending I had a chest infection, that constant disguising yourself is draining. We shouldn’t have to do that. Take the mask off, show those vulnerabilities . . . I received nothing but empathy and kindness when I did.”
If you are struggling at third level, Breslin advises avoiding the pub. “Don’t go through those periods of time and think you can out drink them. You don’t out drink them. If you have anxiety disorder or you’re going through a moment or a period of uneasiness, avoid alcohol like the plague. Don’t try to outrun it, turn and face it. You have people around you. You will, no matter what, have dark, tough moments through college, stress through exams, failing exams, low moods, don’t let them consume you, prepare for them.”
Here is a man, in many ways, the epitome of the alpha male discussing mental health in exactly the way we should be talking about it, without shame or fear and it’s that strength that indicates the character of the man. Reach out, don’t be afraid, create a culture of openness and be aware of yourself and of others is Breslin’s advice for any student. That one kind word to your fellow student might just change their lives.
“I always say to people going to college, you just don’t know, the person beside you might be in a really bad place and it could be one word that could change everything for them, so just be aware of that.”
Five An Post series cycling events will be held between May and September. Breslin will cycle the Meath event on July 24th. See anpost.ie/cycling Niall Breslin’s website is alustforlife.com