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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Ireland finally confronting mental health ills

In the 1970s and 1980s, Olivia O’Leary reigned supreme in Irish journalism.
A formidable broadcaster, the undoubted queen of current affairs, she was a woman in a world of men who commanded enormous respect for her analytical and interviewing skills.
She was fearless.

Olivia O'Leary has revealed her battle with depression during her 20s.

So when such a figure admits to having been floored by depression, to having been unable to get off the sofa, to even get up in the morning, when she speaks candidly on radio of “sitting on a train, and missing my stop as I couldn’t motivate myself to stand up and get up”, there is a generation of men and women aged 40-90 who sit up and listen.

“When somebody in the public domain talks about depression and anxiety, particularly when they are honest and discuss how they developed techniques to manage it, that they learnt to lead a full life with it, that is huge, it is everything that we in mental health services are trying to do,“ says Paul Gilligan, chief executive of St Patrick’s University Hospital.

O’Leary is just the latest in a line of Irish public figures who have broken the omerta around mental health difficulties. She said she was inspired by the courage of Longford/Westmeath TD, Robert Troy who stood up in the Dáil last week and outlined his recent struggles with depression and anxiety.

In recent years, Niall Breslin, aka Bressie, has become the uncrowned patron saint of mental health, while Majella O’Donnell’s disclosure helped a whole generation of older women admit that it’s OK to divulge that they can’t cope.

GAA stars Conor Cusack, Aisling Thompson, and Martin Shanahan spoke to another cohort of the population, as have Mary McEvoy, Marian Keyes, and Brent Pope.
John Saunders of Shine Ireland, which supports people with mental ill health, says that by speaking out, such celebrities unknowingly “provide a model for everybody to talk to family and friends, to their GP”.
“They become a conduit to the conversations that need to be had around the country,” says Saunders.
Saunders and Gilligan believe that as a country, we are only in the nascent stages of understanding mental health and how important it is to manage it.
“But by having more conversations like Olivia O’Leary and Robert Troy have started, we will also begin as a nation to learn what is normal stress and what requires help,” says Saunders.
“As this conversation continues we will begin to differentiate between the stress that is like having a cold and the stress that needs expert help; we will learn how to recognise and manage changes in our mental health.”

The refusal to admit that you or a family member is experiencing depression or anxiety is one of the last taboos in this country, say both experts. This taboo may have lost some of its shame in recent years but a stigma is still engrained, says Gilligan.
We are a country that up to about 10 years ago, chose to lock up our most distressed, to often write them off at a young age, he says.

Research undertaken last year by St Patrick’s Mental Health Services shows that our shift in attitudes of late might not be as seismic as we’d like to think. Only 53% of survey respondents agreed that people with a mental health difficulty are trustworthy. Another 67% agreed that Irish people view being treated for a mental health difficulty as a sign of personal failure.

Gilligan says a deep contradiction exists. One in four people suffer mental health difficulties in their life, which means everyone knows a family member or friend that has experienced such distress, yet such above mentioned opinions around trustworthiness, reliability, and ‘failure’ endure.

Saunders says the silence around mental health has bred this ignorance and made life harder for those suffering. That is why, he says, the likes of O’Leary and Troy are doing a true public service by squashing stigma and by opening up about what they are doing in their lives to help prevent relapse.
Claire O' Sullivan