Elaine Crowley: There is a huge stigma to taking pills, but I wouldn't be here without them

TV presenter Elaine Crowley says she needs to be on antidepressants for the rest of her life to stay well. By speaking out about her mental health, she hopes to encourage others to do the same  
Elaine Crowley: There is a huge stigma to taking pills, but I wouldn't be here without them

Elaine Crowley, spokesperson for the Talking Depression campaign. 

Content warning: this article deals with mental health issues like depression, ideation, medication and the medical system.

For a list of support services, please click here.

She's a familiar face and household name, but despite the glamorous image and seemingly fast-paced lifestyle, life isn’t always easy for Elaine Crowley.

Equally known for her bright and friendly personality as she is for being open and honest about her feelings, she has made no secret of the fact that she has long had mental health issues.

The broadcaster, who is from Newtwopothouse in Cork and is one of 10 children, says she doesn’t remember when it started but has long experienced periods of low mood.

“I’ve struggled with it since I was young and really didn’t notice at the time — although when I was eight, I did write a song called ‘I wish I was happy’ so that might have raised a few alarm bells,” she says. 

“But it was felt that I was just born melancholy — I wasn’t one for running around and playing with other kids and was more into reading books. I wasn’t conscious that there was anything astray with me, just that I was a little different. My two sisters would be playing with their Barbies, and I would be playing the guitar or reading under the stairs.”

Her life took a dramatic turn when she broke her ankle after landing badly when jumping over a wall during her teenage years. “I couldn’t exercise. I put on a lot of weight as I had been very active, doing track, cross country, and basketball. It had a big impact on me, and I think that was the start of my mental health issues.

“I didn’t put a label on it. I just thought I was a bit fed up and a bit fat. In hindsight, that is when the depression raised its head, but I didn’t get help or go on any medication.”

While studying for a degree in communications, film, and broadcasting in Dublin, she damaged her ankle again, this time while running up the stairs.

“It all began to happen again — I was up at night and sleeping all day, and I was very low. My behaviour wasn’t normal,” she says. “And that was when my mam and dad stepped in. I went to the GP and was put on anti-depressants.”

Feel no shame

Although she managed to overcome the difficult period in college and establish a successful broadcasting career in Virgin Media One, when she reached her 30s, things began to get a lot worse and daily life became a struggle.

“I started to feel like I was falling off a cliff,” she says. “In hindsight, these things manifest themselves with hormones. The first time I experienced these feelings, it was down to puberty. And then I was diagnosed with perimenopause in my early 30s and went on HRT (hormone replacement therapy) after undergoing blood and hormone tests. This coincided with my mood getting considerably worse. I tried everything — alternative therapies and medication, chanting, homeopathy — you name it. But nothing seemed to work and it took a while before I had to admit to myself that I needed more treatment.”

Seeing a psychiatrist was difficult as it signalled she needed ongoing medical support. “It affected me hugely because it acknowledged that this wasn’t something that would just go away.”

She was worried about the stigma too. “But I knew it was either be labelled or not be around much longer because I was in a very dark place and couldn’t see any way out of it. I hated myself and everything about me. I didn’t think I was worth anything while putting on a big happy face all the time.

“I never took any time off work due to depression, and if you worked with me, you would never have known that there was anything wrong with me. But I would crawl into bed afterwards — I didn’t want to be around and that was the way it was for years. I didn’t want to do anything about it, but when I did, it was the best decision I ever made — my psychiatrist is an amazing woman and basically saved my life.”

She began taking medication again, which she says will likely be necessary for the rest of her life.

“I feel no shame about that,” she says. “There is a huge stigma to taking pills, but I would be dead without them — I’ve no doubt about that. Some people have a type of depression they can get out of with exercise or the passage of time, but I don’t have that. I’m one of the unlucky ones who will have to stay on meds for my whole life to stay well.”

But medication isn’t “a magic wand” that cures everything, she says.

“There are still peaks and troughs, and I don’t feel great a lot of the time, but I’ve never gone to a place as bad as I was in my 30s. That was the worst I’ve been in my entire life.”

Be a listening ear

Crowley, who is 46, says it is crucial to shine a light on mental health, particularly at this time of year.

“It can be really difficult for a lot of people because if you are not getting enough sunlight or vitamin D, it’s cold and miserable and it does affect many people who are well throughout the year,” she says.

“I go through periods of not liking myself very much and thinking I’m pretty horrible. Although I know at some point it will finish, and I’ll feel OK again, I still tend to go into myself because I don’t like being around other people when I don’t like myself. And I know if I feel like that, people won’t like me either. That said, I’m still very functional and able to do my job — and that has never changed.”

But putting on a brave front can be difficult and the Cork woman says people should be aware of the mental health needs of others.

“I wouldn’t wish it (depression) on my worst enemy because unless you’re going through this, you would never understand,” she says. “My advice to anyone looking at someone struggling is to try and just listen and sometimes say nothing at all, but if they do need medical help, guide them towards that.

“I try to take things day by day and not be too hard on myself. It helps to remember that it’s an illness and is not my fault. I also stay on top of things by talking to my sister Maggie, who is my rock.”

She says that sometimes people need a bit of “alone time” to step away from life — because if they are struggling with mental health, they’re already beating themselves up and feel “bad enough about not being the person they wish they were”.

“If other people are giving them a hard time about it, that’s not easy,” she says. “Most people don’t want to be told to ‘snap out of it’ or that their life is great. It’s not helpful.

“So, if you see someone going down a dark path, the kindest thing you could do for them is just be kind.”

  • Elaine Crowley is a spokesperson for the Talking Depression campaign, launched this week by Janssen Ireland. 
  • Talking Depression aims to encourage people to take the first step towards finding the right support by having open and honest conversations about their depression with someone they trust. 
  • See: janssenwithme.ie/en-ie/depression/
  • If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, please click here for a list of support services

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