Athlete turned rock star Niall Breslin puts mental health on the agenda for Ireland Week

By Joe Piasecki

Niall Breslin took control of his anxiety and depression by refusing to hide them anymore
Photo by Ruth Medjber

Niall Breslin is the kind of guy so many guys want to be. He’s been a professional athlete, chart-topping musician and TV star, yet remains courteous and humble.

He’s also struggled for years with generalized anxiety disorder and depression, and in sharing his story through a bestselling book, popular podcast and the nonprofit “Lust for Life,” Breslin has become Ireland’s leading public advocate for mental health and emotional wellbeing — especially for men.

But “Bressie,” 39, is most definitely not a self-help guru. Some of that stuff, he argues, can be part of the problem. His path to wellness is about “holding negativity to account,” as he puts it — confronting bad feelings as part of human nature rather than pasting over them with happiness mandates that implicitly judge those who are not happy.

Breslin decided to go public with his struggles after having a massive panic attack before a live TV taping in 2012. The result was the 2015 book “Me and My Mate Jeffrey: A Story of Big Dreams, Tough Realities and Facing My Demons Head On.” Jeffrey is the name he gave his anxiety and depression.

This summer Breslin launched “Where is My Mind?” a conversational podcast about the basics of living with mindfulness in an increasingly divisive society moving at breakneck speed. As part of Ireland Week, which kicks off Friday with IrelandCon at LMU’s new Playa Vista campus, he’ll be interviewing Irish actor Chris O’Dowd (“Bridesmaids,” “The IT Crowd”) during a live taping of his podcast on Nov. 8 at The Townhouse and Del Monte Speakeasy in Venice.

“Ireland’s connection to America is at the beating heart of this country. It’s something we really value and we think about a lot,” says Breslin during a phone call from Dublin. For his podcast to be part of Ireland Week, he adds, “is a meaningful statement that mental health is now on the agenda on a big level.”

How would you describe Jeffrey?

Jeffrey is somebody I spent most of my life fighting with, not really understanding and not wanting to understand because he hurt me. Jeffery is also somebody I felt I had to hide from the world, which made it all the more difficult. After 15 years of fighting with Jeffrey I’d had enough, and I decided I wanted to try and build a bridge of some kind of friendship with him, even get to understand him. When I first brought Jeffrey into the world I realized that it wasn’t my mental health I struggled with the most, it was having to hide it all the time.

Your experience has been described many different ways — stress, anxiety, depression, lack of mindfulness …

I’ve spent the last few years of my life trying to reframe the language around mental health, and I think the language has gotten very, very broad. The way I look at things is it’s about being human. Life is up, down, left and right, and sometimes it’s really, truly difficult. I think we’ve created this society where people believe we have to be unicorns and Care Bears and happy all the time — it’s just not real; our brains weren’t designed that way.

I don’t throw around words like stress, because stress is important in the sense that it’s part of our brain. If we didn’t have stress we’d all be dead. So I think we have to look at things like anxiety as being normal, and anxiety disorder as a different kettle of fish. Having a few bad days is not depression. Depression is very, very intense. A few bad days are incredibly normal. It’s when your depression or your anxiety or your OCD starts to take over your life, it’s important that you realize there’s a problem and you address it. If you are human and you have a mind, you will struggle sometimes. That’s the nature of the beast.

People in L.A. throw around the word gratitude a lot. Is that a problem?

Gratitude comes from the idea of positive psychology and what happens in the brain when we show gratitude and compassion. There’s huge power in that. But there’s far more power in teaching people how to hold negativity to account, how to relate that not every negative thought is real. Our brains, from an evolutionary psychology point of view, were not designed to be grateful all the time or to be full of compassion all the time. If we were, we wouldn’t have survived. There’s true power in [gratitude]… but not if we throw it around like it doesn’t mean anything.

What I don’t think the world needs is another self-help book. Telling people to be better versions of themselves is by default telling them they’re not good enough how they are, which by default is why we’re all so messed up, because we’re all trying to chase this perfect, utopian thing that isn’t actually achievable. … Part of our brain’s design is the negativity bias, and I look at that quite a lot in my podcast: why these designs for life are now starting to overwhelm us because the media — certain members of the media — are using it against us, and it’s overwhelming our brains not because we’re bad people but because we’re human.

Is your blog post titled “I Need to Recognize the Donald Trump in Me” suggesting the state of dialogue in the world is bringing out that side of people more so than before?

Yes. For me, Donald Trump isn’t about having a huge level of interest in him; I have interest in the people resonating with the words that he uses. In America we talk about the alt-right. The alt-right has always been there; he’s just given everyone a green light to be that person. He’s just become a beacon of that hate and that apathy. What happened in Ireland when Donald Trump was voted in was we immediately said that anybody who voted for Donald Trump was a racist. That’s not true. I believe an awful lot of people who voted for him felt lost, disenfranchised, broken in a way. He went after that. And I feel this level of language and hate has taught people to start desensitizing themselves.

I was in a shop in Ireland and there was a newspaper with a picture of a young child, the same age as my nephew, who drowned crossing a sea to try to get away from being killed. And I remember not feeling anything. And I thought: My God, have I desensitized myself so much that this image isn’t truly horrifying me and having me on my knees? It’s the same when you hear of 20 young people shot in a school. I had started to brush this stuff off, and I realized that’s not me — the thing I’m most proud of about myself is that I do have empathy, I do care greatly for others. And I could feel myself desensitizing myself in order to deal with all this negativity all the time, this horrible hate. I don’t want that in me. It’s not me. But the reason I [didn’t feel] is because society has become quite difficult. … These disparate, binary headlines are just hurting us.

What grounds you?

My family, first and foremost. Everything I do has them at the heart of it. The [practice] that grounds me the most, I think is mindfulness. For me mindfulness is about creating self-awareness, to know what in society really nourishes you and what fatigues you. Sometimes we’re moving so fast that we’re not aware we’re overwhelmed. It takes stopping to realize how overwhelmed you truly are. My family has always, if things are getting out of control, they’re the very first people to slap me in the face and say: ‘You have to address this.’ I feel blessed and humbled that I have a family like that. That’s something I truly have gratitude for.

Something that really helped me was building a habitual pattern of compassion in my life. I practiced compassion. I said something compassionate about myself every day at one stage. I did show practical gratitude; I always think of five things in my life that I’m truly thankful for every morning before I get out of bed — I call it my day-framer. And I try to be as mindful throughout my day as much as I can. I try to find moments in my day where I can stop and not necessarily meditate, just moments that I stop.

And one of the big things that I’ve built into my life is non-judgment, because I never know what anyone’s living with, what anyone’s feeling. … Good communication builds relationships, and the way I do that is I always try to see the world from the other person’s point of view, even if I don’t agree with it. … I don’t need to enforce my opinion. If you look online, that’s where a lot of it has gone to. We shout and abuse people online and are outraged by everything. And if you’re outraged by everything, you’re outraged by nothing.

What’s behind your books for kids?

It’s important to talk to kids about emotions. If they can feel it, you need to give them language to talk about it. So that’s what the books became: using mindful techniques to give kids the ability to communicate how they are feeling.

People would assume lifestyles in Ireland are different than in Los Angeles, but you’ve talked about texting-and-driving being epidemic in Ireland. What’s eroding Irish mindfulness?

Where I’m a standing right now is Barrow Street in Dublin, which is the headquarters of Google, and they call it the Silicon Docks. Dublin now moves a million miles an hour. All the major tech companies in the world have headquarters in Dublin. It’s a different city than it used to be. Certain parts of Ireland are relaxed and beautiful and green, but Dublin is certainly not that.

I’ve been to L.A. three times; this’ll be my fourth. I think the West Coast of America has a far more easygoing nature. Irish people are good fun, but we have a lot of cracks. One of the biggest issues we deal with in our charity is how Irish men have the highest suicide rate in Europe. For a man between the ages of 28 and 38 in Ireland, the highest rate of death is suicide. Why is this really good fun always having to crack? That’s what I’m going to be talking to Chris [O’Dowd] about in this live podcast. Chris is from the same area of Ireland as me, same age as me, same upbringing. I want to talk to him about what is it about the Irish man that we struggle so much, that we can’t address emotion. I look at things like colonialism and the church and make the realization that Irish men have never held their own morals or ethics. We were always told how to feel and told how to be. Only in the past 20 years have Irish men started to figure out ourselves. There have been huge social movements in Ireland, and we’re now seen as probably the most socially liberal country in Europe. Your perception of Ireland is probably quite conservative and quite laid back. We’re the opposite now.