MENTAL HEALTH MATTERS: With Brent Pope
This October some of Ireland’s most well-known faces took part in a week long broadcast of Walk in My Shoes Radio, Ireland’s only all-digital pop-up radio station. The station which is the only pop-up radio station dedicated to promoting positive mental health broadcast live from St Patrick’s University Hospital to mark World Mental Health Awareness Week. The station’s celebrity ambassadors and a host of contributors shared their stories to encourage the Irish public to seek support if needed and make their mental health and wellbeing a priority. RSVP sat down with Brent Pope, who shared his stories of anxiety, depression and grief.
When did your anxiety begin or have you always struggled with it?
I’ve suffered crippling anxiety issues ever since I was 13/14 years of age and, sadly for me, there was a lot of shame around mental health. I felt ashamed that I could be viewed as a big strong aggressive rugby player and have problems in other areas. In that generation coming from a small rural town, I didn’t know who to talk to about my problem, so I buried it for the best years of my life. People can be seen as hugely successful in their lives and still have these conditions. I’ve been on TV, written books and played for my country. People looked at me and thought that was achievement, but I couldn’t see any of that.
So for you the perceived stigma of needing help really prevented you from speaking out for 30 years?
Today people have many avenues for help but there wasn’t then. If you were sound in body, you were supposed to be sound in mind. I’m only coming out the other end now after 35 years of feeling like I had this dirty little secret. I could control my physical well-being but not my mental health and I felt ashamed that I couldn’t do that. I was too ashamed to ask for help. As a man I thought I was weak. A tough rugby player for New Zealand wasn’t meant to go through things like that, it was more like, “man up and suck it up”.
And what has been key for you in managing your anxiety today?
I have to keep fit and eat right, but we all have our ways of dealing with it. I won’t lie and say recovery hasn’t been traumatic; it’s been some of the toughest years of my life. A panic attack can come on out of nowhere, but I do have tools that can help me. I’ve undergone therapy, I use meditation techniques, although I’m not the world’s best mediator. I keep a gratitude journal, I’m empathetic in my life, I like to give back… all these things go towards working on my mental health. But I have to work on it every day. I describe what I have as the half-empty heart, and that’s really sad. I don’t want to be like that. The messages I get from other people telling me how I have helped them make it all worthwhile though.