Strong Mentality: An Interview with Niall Breslin

Deputy Editor Eoin McSweeney speaks to Niall Breslin (aka Bressie) about mental health and his personal coping techniques. 

Sylvia Plath once said: “Is there no way out of the mind?” Your own conscience is something that is always with you, forever in the background, but never too far away. It’s impossible to run from your own thoughts and these constant ripples of emotion can consume you.

Is that what a mental illness feels like, a jail cell from which there is no escape? Minor doubts and little worries grow and multiply like cancerous cells. You begin to feel like you’re drowning, but everyone else is still breathing. Having not known this feeling, I’m not sure if I can properly describe it, but Niall Breslin is one man who can. Speaking at a conference in UCC about mental health, he spoke about his torrid battle with depression.

“There was nothing that you could have said to me or done to me that would have made a difference and people need to accept that. It’s hard to say that, but I was in such a dark, dark place that if Gandhi was there, he couldn’t have helped.”

Niall Breslin, known more commonly as Bressie, is a phenomenon. Representing Westmeath in his youth, he played Gaelic football at minor and U21 level while also being a rugby playing juggernaut. He went to University College Dublin on a scholarship and represented Leinster. After forming the Blizzards in 2004 and releasing two acclaimed albums before they split in 2009, he had a brief solo career before becoming a judge on The Voice of Ireland in 2012.

You might think that such a multitalented superstar would stick to one career and perfect it. What made him hop from one fantastic job to another again and again? The answer is he that suffered from and still suffers from generalized anxiety disorder.

The illness is characterised by excessive, uncontrollable and often irrational bouts of worry. It can be difficult to function on a daily basis if you are a sufferer, because you generally expect disaster around every corner and it can make you nervous in large groups of people. Other symptoms can include fatigue, nausea and occasional difficulty with breathing.

It robbed him of every chance he had to succeed, despite his musical and sporting prowess. He needed to stop the rot and he has; his work on The Voice of Ireland showing that he has turned a corner.

“I think what it did was there was something like a demon inside me that needed to happen. But the real turning point was that another career was going to be taken from me. And I said no, I can’t let that happen again.”

At his darkest moments, he was in a deep depressive state. From an early age he suffered from his anxiety problem, a constant nagging worry that normally only occurs the morning of a test or before a big game. He would go home from school and rip his duvet apart in a fit of panic because he felt that he couldn’t breathe. As a fifteen-year old, he would go for days without sleep and his hair began to fall out. After purposefully breaking his arm at one stage, his GP told him that it was puberty.

“I broke my own arm and I was basically plastered up and in a sling. I was sent off from hospital after telling the doctor that I think I have depression and I was told that it’s puberty. The closest I got [to suicide] was walking out of the hospital and my mum was picking me up. I thought in my head the different ways that I could do it.

And it was weird, it was such a sense of comfort. I felt so happy, so comfortable and a solace came over me. That’s what scared me out of it, because I actually felt good. And I thought fuck this, and I stepped back. That was the one and only time in my life that I actually thought it could happen.”

This was just one story from a string of miserable years in which opportunity after opportunity passed him by. He moved to London to try and escape, to run from his own mind. It didn’t work and it was here that he suffered his worst fit to date.

“The breakdown in London, everyone has said oh god, but I was actually so fucked that I couldn’t even think of it [suicide]. It didn’t even cross my mind. I just felt, oh my god, this is me for life. I started picturing myself in an institution with white walls. I actually started thinking all this crazy stuff and I got very scared, very quick.”

Despite this, he took the job offered to him as a judge on RTÉ’s new show The Voice of Ireland. Unfortunately, he had not yet escaped the attacks and before one of the live shows he had a severe panic attack. He decided then that another career was not going to be stolen from him and he sought help.

Medication had never worked for him, he just seemed to gain weight and feel worse. Doctors were not the solution in his mind and neither were psychiatrists. He didn’t want to run anymore, he wanted to beat his depression, he wanted to start sleeping again and above all, he wanted to start living again. So he set about confronting his anxiety problem and he has never looked back.

“I gave mine [his mind] a name. Jeffrey. Sometimes it was my best friend, sometime it was my worst enemy. I just learned to appreciate it a lot more. None of us really know how our minds work, we just presume that they work automatically.”

By giving a name to his mind, Bressie was able to confront it. Whenever he felt an attack coming on he would tell Jeffrey to stop and soon it began to work. This is actually a tried and tested technique, with Winston Churchill naming his depression his ‘black dog.’ This sets your depression to one side so that you’re not blaming yourself for not feeling well; instead you can blame it on ‘Jeffrey.’

He also adopted a more active lifestyle. Sleeping was still a problem, but if he felt an attack beginning, he would immediately grab his shoes and go running. He would do this almost mechanically and so no thoughts of isolation or desperation crossed his mind. These runs got longer and longer, but each night he slept more and more soundly until eventually he was able to sleep through the night for the first time in years.

He started to use techniques which allowed him to cherish life and be more thankful for what he had. He has five key methods that he adopts to ensure that his outlook on life is brighter from the moment he wakes up. He encourages everyone to use these techniques, even if they are not mentally ill. He calls it positive psychology.

“We have to stop judging people for no reason. Especially if we don’t have any idea what they’re going through, or the situation that they’re in. Have self-compassion. We’re so hard on ourselves, we really are so hard on ourselves. It’s perfectly okay to kick yourself in the arse when you do something stupid and when you do something you feel you shouldn’t have done. But how many of us actually congratulate ourselves when we do something good?

The third thing is gratitude. Every morning, I do thirty thank you’s and I thank the most relevant silly things thirty times. I’m thankful for toothpaste, I’m thankful for toast, I’m thankful for my mother, I’m thankful for… Jeremy Kyle. The fourth one is being present. People who deal with depression always think of their past, people with anxiety always think of the future and people who are happy are always thinking of right now. Being present is literally being so aware of exactly what you’re doing.”

The fifth core principle of ‘positive psychology’ was to download an app called Headspace. It’s designed to train your mind and be your own personal instructor. It is based around mindfulness and meditation and is a stress free way to get your mind into shape. Much like the video game Big Brain Academy, it provides a fun and interactive way to exercise your brain. Meditation can sometimes actually be quite terrifying for those with a mental illness, as Bressie does not fail to stress, but Headspace makes it easier and safer to meditate.

“Mindfulness is being aware of yourself, being aware of your thoughts, being aware of your breathing. It’s ironic because every time I try to meditate, I hyperventilate because I start concentrating on my breathing and all of a sudden I’m having a panic attack. And I think Jesus Christ, this is meant to help. Then I listened to headspace. And it doesn’t ask you to concentrate on anything. It just talks to you about your thoughts and shows you animations.”

Through these methods and others, Bressie has managed to control his mind and now he wants to help others. For the past two years he has been giving various talks on mental health in a bid to remove the taboos attached to the topic. His most famous to date was a speech he gave at the Dublin Lovin Show, where he inspired a nation with an honest and startling account of his struggles. I asked him if it was difficult for him to discuss the topic even though many of his mental scars were still fresh.

“No, no not at all. Sometimes, when you go through particular moment you go back to it in your head, but you know what, I get comfortable in the way I speak about it. When I speak about it, I tell my story, nobody can really tell me that I’m wrong. You have the option to write it down and structure it and make a list. But then I think it’s a bit less raw, so it’s better not to write down your thoughts.”

Social media has become a new way to reach out to millions and is a vital tool in combatting depression and allowing the topic of mental health to be more open for discussion. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are all platforms for reform and Bressie understand this. He has launched an online campaign called #My1000Hours, which is an online blog aimed at people who have, at one time or another, suffered from mental health problems.

Looking at most online blogs dealing with mental health, it is full of psychologists and doctors explaining what a mental problem should feel like, yet most of them have never experienced such a problem themselves before and so are not best equipped to describe the symptoms. So instead he wanted people who had suffered from a mental illness giving advice and comfort to those who were going through the difficult experience. It’s since taken off and been a huge success, possibly saving lives along the way.

“I’ve seen all these blogs on mental health and all the people were just psychologists telling you what depression was. I wanted the people who go through it to tell their own stories. I wanted them to talk about their problems, things from postnatal depression to general anxieties. So I felt if I got people talking about these issues, they could really relate to it.”

He doesn’t like the thought of young people suffering what he had to go through and has done his utmost to connect with teenagers around the country. They are the most open-minded generation ever, but still the topic of mental health is not discussed. Too few people put their arm around a friend and ask: How are you? The work that he has done on his new RTÉ show, Teenage Kicks, in which he helps children from disadvantaged areas in Limerick realise their musical dreams, has brought him even closer to the youth of Ireland.

“I feel that the issue we have with broadcasters is that you’re not allowed speak about teenage mental health. If you’re under 18, you’re not allowed talk about it, so rather than talk about it, I just wanted to empower the teenagers. These were people that were consistently told no and, shouldn’t, can’t, don’t. Do you know what? Fuck them, you can do that and it empowered them and we saw how they reacted.

“The underlying thing that you really wouldn’t have seen was their journeys with their own issues. The reason that it worked as a documentary is that they understood that and I understood that. They understood that I was completely relating to them even though I wasn’t from an area that they were from. Some of them had a hell of a lot more difficult social issues than I would have had.”

Bressie also believes that the only way to properly inform students about their mental wellbeing is through the national curriculum. He has been talking with various politicians and feels that a subject on mental health is just as important as maths or Irish. The exam could possibly consist of a question on depression, a question on anxiety, a question on mental fitness or maybe visualisation and mindfulness. An exam like this would also benefit those without any mental health issues as it would allow them to focus in exams and before matches.

“My focus at the moment is completely on our teenagers. I’m getting this into our education system one way or the other. I’m not going to stop until I can. But I believe that this generation is number one, the one that needs the most weapons and number two, has the ability to change our perception forever. This helps people who don’t have issues, they can say at exam time how do I focus, how do I visualise or they can ask how do I become a better person?

You look at people who do crazy things like row across the Atlantic. That’s not a physical thing, that’s mental fitness. That’s something that they teach themselves. I think that we should teach that in our schools. That way, when people do go into work and their boss tears into them, they don’t go oh my god oh my god and go into their corner. They go, there’s a reason for that, there’s a reason he lost his cool, how am I going to deal with this? This way, this way, this way, here’s my coping strategy, let’s do it.”

However he knows that this is a long term goal and something that is not likely to be achieved soon. But he is willing to bring the topic into our schools and workplaces to ensure that the people of Ireland have a healthy mind as well as a healthy body.

“It’s a long term goal, it could be twenty years. My initial aim was to change Irish people’s attitudes towards mental health. I thought how do I achieve that aim? And the way to achieve that aim for me, is obviously long term. We must educate. And not just educate on things like mental health and depression, educate on things like how young people can be mentally stronger.”

The idea of incorporating a subject on mental health into the curriculum is an innovative one and could be well be incredibly successful if implemented. He will need help in achieving this aim, but there are people, such as Conor Cusack and various politicians, who share his ideals. It may take him twenty, even thirty years to complete his goal, but he’s young and he’s willing to wait. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and Niall has already taken more than a few.