As we mark World Mental Health Week, this is a powerful story of a young Donegal woman who learned to appreciate the beauty in her life after depression:
Shannon McLaughlin, aged 21, moved from her home in Convoy to Arkansas, USA in 2015. She was a fit and healthy student with an exciting new life and bright future, but depression crept in and darkened her days.
As a Cross Country and Track athlete at Arkansas Tech University, one of the first signs of her depression was her lack of interest in running. She had a loving family, great friends and much to be thankful for after her sister beat cancer. However, sadness and pain took over her life in her first year as a Psychology major.
Shannon has bravely decided to document her experience to highlight the importance of good mental health and show others that hope can return if they seek help. Her first blog charts her life journey as she achieved her dreams of running for an American college before experiencing personal struggles.
“It was amazing at first and then I think the loneliness and depression set in and I didn’t really know what to do or say or anything to help myself. It went on for a long time before I finally decided to start medication,” Shannon told Donegal Woman.
After publishing her own story, ‘Beauty within Pain’ connected with more people than Shannon ever expected.
“A lot of people reached out to me, even people that I didn’t know, telling me about similar experiences they were having and how much my blog helped them realize that they were not alone and it was totally normal and okay to feel like that at times.
“It astonished me the support I got and I can honestly say that it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders because I tried for so long to hide that I had problems and to hide that I was taking medication it was just a huge relief to tell everyone the way I did and to receive nothing but love in return,” Shannon said.
Delighted that she can help others, Shannon hopes to end the stigma and raise more awareness for people to speak up about mental health,
In her blog, Shannon recounts how a best friend, who she sadly lost last year, inspired her to see positivity in life through tough times. Watching her older sister battle cancer was a difficult experience for Shannon, but with faith and family she always counted her blessings.
“With so much to be joyful about and thankful for it’s hard to imagine that I could ever have a down day in my life. However, somehow I manage to have quite a few,” Shannon writes.
She charts the outset of her mental anguish in harrowing words:
“It started in episodes, my freshman year. I would have one bad week out of each month or two months. A week where it would be near impossible to drag myself out of bed, make it to class, eat, or socialize with friends.
“I would wake up, go to practice, go back to bed, and wallow in self pity for the rest of the day.
“It wasn’t just sadness, it was physical pain. A numbing pain deep in my chest that was unshakeable. I was beyond self-care.”
Shannon had lost her love of running, and it was only when she came home to Donegal for the summer that she found motivation again.
“Throughout the summer I progressively increased my mileage and began to enjoy running again. I was falling in love all over again with the sport that I have loved for 15 years.
“That summer I decided that returning to America was the best move for me. I had my college, I had my best friends, and I had a healthier mindset,” Shannon said.
However, the hopelessness returned in America and Shannon began to suffer from panic attacks, but was reluctant to begin the anti-depressants that her nurses and councillors urged her to take. Once she began medication and restructured her thinking, she recalls how her life changed for the better:
“Being a psychology major, I believed that everything could be solved by working through verbally and by myself instead of medicating.
“Fast forward a few months of not feeling any better I made the desperate decision to start taking anti-depressants.
“As well as taking pills, I did other things to help improve my mental health such as practicing positive thoughts, working out, going to church regularly, surrounding myself with positive people who genuinely cared for me, doing things that I loved and helped me relax such as hammocking, reading, hiking, and talking with friends and family about my feelings.
“Being a very cut off person when it comes to talking about feelings, that was a struggle for me but now I feel as though I can talk about anything openly and honestly and not feel embarrassed.”
The young woman is now proud of her accomplishments and her ability to control her thoughts and cope with bad days.
“2016/17 was definitely my year for growth, because this year I feel stronger, and more resilient than I ever have in my life,” she writes.
Shannon is keen to share this uplifting message of hope with others:
“For anyone out there feeling hopeless, worthless, and lacking in motivation, I tell you this, PERSEVERE! It will get better and life will be so beautiful. There is so much beauty in this world and it’s just waiting for you.
“Your mental health is your physical health and is the most important thing you possess. Don’t let darkness dim your light. And always look for the beauty within the pain.”
Shannon has big plans to continue blogging and exploring the world of mental health. You can read her first post in full here, and follow Inside the Mind of Shannon McLaughlin for future updates from the inspirational Donegal woman.
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Readers who are affected by the issues raised in this story are encouraged to contact the Samaritans free on 116 123.
Jigsaw: Jigsaw projects across Ireland work with communities to better support young people’s mental health and well being. Tel: 01 4727 010