Northern Ireland

Mental illness 'like cancer of the mind'

Nicole Devlin Image copyright Nicole Devlin
Image caption Nicole Devlin says she is speaking out about her own experiences in a bid to help other people and reduce stigma

A County Tyrone woman who was hospitalised in England for almost three years because of mental illness says there needs to be a big cultural shift in Northern Ireland if issues like suicide and self harm are to be tackled.

Nicole Devlin says she is speaking out about her own experiences in a bid to help other people and reduce stigma - particularly around personality disorders.

"A mental illness is like having a cancer of the mind which can be terminal in some cases," she said.

"I've been quite ill physically and mentally in my life and would rather have a broken bone any day compared to the mental distress I've gone through."

She was speaking as a report found an "overwhelming gap" between mental health provision and needs in Northern Ireland.

The 30-year-old, who is now a student in Belfast, was first admitted to a psychiatric hospital when she was 17.

It followed three suicide attempts, the last of which she describes as "very serious".

"Things had just gotten really really bad and I could see no other way out.

'It's ok to cry and ok not to be ok'

"I didn't want to be alive and didn't believe I was worthy of living either. When I went into hospital I was there for a few months and just after my 18th birthday I received a diagnosis of emotionally unstable personality disorder."

The disorder is characterised by instability of emotions, difficulty of forming and maintaining relationships and problems with impulsiveness and self-harm.

From then until she was 25, Nicole was to spend months in hospital.

"Certainly, after I went in, I felt like I was imprisoned, that people were against me, that they were trying to control my life though they were trying to keep me safe.

"For a long time, my life was really chaotic and there were a lot of times nursing staff had to sit with me 24 hours a day one one-to-one observation to prevent me from hurting myself."

She describes the almost three years she was an in-patient at a hospital in England which specialises in emotionally unstable personality disorders as a very difficult time.

Image copyright PA

"The other thing was I was such a long way away from home, was very vulnerable at such a young age and I think not having your family or loved ones around you is very detrimental when you are alone going through something very horrible."

Coming back to Northern Ireland meant experiencing a new kind of pain - realising that friends and schoolmates were moving on.

"I saw a lot of people my age had gone on to university, had jobs and relationships and it was just as if I had been locked away for three years. "

Eventually, Nicole says, she was able to turn a corner, paying particular tribute to her current doctor, key workers and health team.

"I've always had a good family around me and they've been supportive - but my three-year-old nephew definitely showed me the meaning of life. He showed me that everyone can be vulnerable, that it's ok to cry and ok not to be ok."

Nicole has now come to the end of a two-year access diploma in social sciences and, after her exams, hopes to go to university to study psychology.

She also uses her own experience to help others by volunteering at a mental health charity.

"I used to be ashamed of having a mental health illness, thinking that it made me weak.

"But it's shaped me as a person, made me a person who's more aware of the bigger picture and made me want to change things.

"Lots of people who are going through things are doing so alone, so if I can use even a tiny part of my experience to help someone, then I feel all of this has been worth it."