We all need to reach out to our children with sensitivity
Published 23/04/2015 | 02:30
It's not often that I attend an event that I leave wanting to tell everybody about what I just heard. I am referring to the compelling stories of 'service users' of the psychiatric and mental health service. Behind the clinical jargon lay the emotions of vulnerable humans who didn't have readily identifiable physical problems, easily diagnosed and treated.
One in four people encounter an episode of mental ill-health in their lifetime. I myself suffered a breakdown in 1996 from nervous exhaustion and depression, gaining enormous strength from subsequent psychotherapy.
These journeys of anxiety, low self-esteem, fear and isolation are aggravated and extenuated by the failure of society to listen. Family members, classmates in school, friends and the primary care system weren't able to respond to the early symptoms so that they could get appropriate, timely help. The stigma of mental illness is still alive and well in the Ireland of 2015, forcing denial of problems to even our nearest and dearest.
Yesteryear, there was little understanding, let alone public discourse, about what was colloquially termed "suffering from your nerves". Growing up in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, the psychiatric services were provided in St Senan's Hospital - commonly referred to as the "Mental". It comprised a massive set of red brick buildings, away from the community. It was a large local employer of nurses, who seemed to operate behind locked doors and administer sedation. Inside was a concealed world of unknown people, mad or bad.
The prevailing culture was denial, unspoken detainment. Families rarely spoke about a relative's admission. There were the horrors of electric shock therapy. Those who were "dried out" from alcoholism were "respectable" enough to be revealed.
The core tenet of the 'Vision for Change' policy over recent decades was to switch from institutional to community-based care systems. Cynical observers felt the driving force was cost savings to reduce staff numbers, pushing patients to fend for themselves without adequate supports.
This analysis has been proven wrong. The quality of life for patients is built around allowing them, albeit with risks, to embrace their own well-being - confronting their own demons and teaching positive mental health techniques.
Solutions are not confined to drugs that merely dull their senses without tackling the inner causes of anguish. Revealing stories of childhood adversity is vital to unlock the underlying reasons which lead to people failing to cope.
Niall Breslin, better known as Bressie on RTÉ's 'The Voice of Ireland', told his remarkable story of incredible bouts of anxiety/panic attacks and endless nights of insomnia. It began as a child in Israel, where his dad was an Irish Army UN peacekeeper. The noise of night-shelling terrorised him. Later, in his adolescent and adult life, these concealed fears haunted him. He was selected as a Westmeath Gaelic footballer and subsequently got a professional contract with Leinster Rugby. But one night before a critical rugby match, he strapped his arm to the side rail of his bed. Using his other fist, he struck himself with ferocious blows, breaking a bone, so he would be admitted to hospital, unable to play.
In hospital he was unable to tell anybody of his acute mental distress. As a UCD undergraduate at a lecture, he felt so scared he spent six hours hiding in a toilet. His latent anxiety about a live TV show caused him to have a horrific vomiting outbreak moments before a live show transmission.
Bressie articulates, with amazing honesty, past phobias as "me and my mate Jeffrey". Having become addicted to various prescribed sleeping tablets, he only overcame habitual inability to sleep by running 38 kilometres one night. He credits a general practitioner with opening to him the possibilities of learning, adapting and using positive mental health techniques. He is now an ambassador for Aware and a trenchant advocate for reforms within our education system, so appropriate early warning signs are identified to allow teenagers to access help.
Rory lives in West Cork and is now working with mental health services as a professional. He had more than 20 hospitalisations in psychiatric care. He set up groups to assist people who "hear voices", which can act as a warning sign.
I never knew that one of the reasons people harm themselves is from a belief that their pain would be released with their blood.
Rory battled with family members; years of failure to be understood and rejecting assistance. He gave us unique insights into mental anguish. His recovery, to progress as a father of four and become an employee of the HSE is inspirational.
A mother, Ann, narrated her family's experience with their daughter, Yvonne, explaining the mistakes parents can make in early stages through ignorance and without diagnosis. "Pull yourself together", is often the wrong refrain of fathers when faced with a child suffering from a psychosis. Modern nursing care relies on family support and key personal relationships to sustain patients towards a fulfilling life. The great news is just how treatable and curable mental illness is. There is no inevitability about 11,000 individual, annual treatments for self-harm in hospitals. Over the past decade the number of suicides has risen sharply - over 500 per year. Our prisons are full of people with mental health issues.
Despite ring-fenced budgets, mental health staff numbers have decreased from 12,242 to 9,065. Ireland has the fourth highest level of mental illness in young men between 15 and 34. Teenagers are still treated in adult wards. Talk therapy is still a Cinderella within the system.
However, what I really learned was that, more important than public policy resource allocations and ministerial pronouncements, is the necessity for greater awareness by everybody, so we are alert to the early symptoms in our children and adolescents. Tell-tale signs can be apparent.
The antidote to these 'moods' is ensuring some simple steps to positive mental health. Sharing problems. Listening and talking. Encouraging healthy eating, sleeping well and taking exercise. These proactive measures can be more effective than antidepressant tablets.
Let's all play our inadequate part in reaching out with sensitivity and understanding before isolation and pain wrecks even more lives.