Tuesday 27 September 2016

Election will tell us if we are truly ready to leave the past behind and create a fair and just society

The coming contest is an opportunity to have a meaningful national debate about how we can prioritise our mental health from now on

Paul Gilligan

Published 24/01/2016 | 02:30

'We know that the rates of those experiencing mental health difficulties in Ireland have been high over the last number of years and that suicide, self-harm and substance-abuse rates are equally as high' Stock photo: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire
'We know that the rates of those experiencing mental health difficulties in Ireland have been high over the last number of years and that suicide, self-harm and substance-abuse rates are equally as high' Stock photo: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire

From a psychological perspective, the forthcoming General Election is perhaps one of the most important since the foundation of the State. The country has come through a metamorphosis since the last election, having experienced one of its greatest economic challenges. Throughout, the mental health and general psyche of the nation have taken a battering.

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What this election is going to demonstrate is whether or not the country is on the road to psychological recovery or not. Perhaps the most destructive legacy of the last eight years has been the anger, bitterness and distrust engrained into Irish society generated by the loss, despair and trauma experienced. If we, the public, have not resolved this legacy, this election will be a societal blood sport.

The big question of this election is can we - and are we willing to - work to create a healthy society, a society that is driven by human rights values, a society that wants its citizens to be responsible, happy, content and constructive? Are we ready to learn from and leave our past behind us to create a just and fair society for our children and their children after them?

The election and how it is played out will provide us with a key indication. The result, while important, is not as important as the election process itself.

Will it be dominated by angry negativity or by positive constructive ideas? Will it be about personalised attacks, capitalising on others' weaknesses and mistakes or will it be about presenting and debating values, principled policies and a vision for the Ireland of the future?

The political candidates themselves will determine how they choose to fight this election but the greatest influence on their strategies will be public attitudes. We need to recognise that most of the candidates putting themselves forward for election really care and value this country.

Some have made mistakes but the majority of them are honourable people who are willing to make great personal sacrifices for their country. They should be treated with respect and understanding by us, by their fellow candidates and by the media.

We need to set our ground rules and our expectations. The principles we want to see engrained in our society need to be applied to the way this contest is conducted.

Concentrating on content rather than on presentation and spin, asking ourselves what sort of society we want to create and what policies best fit with this vision are essential.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this is our vision for our health services and in particular our mental-health services. Creating a mentally healthy society with a world-class mental-health service, where every child, adolescent and adult needing help is provided with this help in a timely fashion and where no child is admitted to an adult mental health facility, are principles few of us would argue with.

Indeed, many parties have already identified this as an election issue. However, their focus is on identifying what other governments and parties have failed to do, rather than on what could be done to create such a system.

The sad reality is that because of this negative political focus no government in the last 20 years has managed to create a satisfactory mental health service. We need to expect and support better.

Mental health and wellbeing need to be at the centre of this election. Our expectations of the candidates needs to be reasonable and conducive to good mental health.

Research has demonstrated that the balance between workload and control over our working lives impacts significantly on our physical and mental health. We know that the rates of those experiencing mental health difficulties in Ireland have been high over the last number of years and that suicide, self-harm and substance-abuse rates are equally as high. We also know that stigma regarding mental health difficulties is still endemic in society.

There can be little doubt that our politicians must be experiencing a vast amount of physical and mental health issues which they are perhaps not acknowledging or addressing. It is likely that many decisions are and will be made under serious stress, hopelessness and distress. We cannot expect our leaders to prioritise health, particularly mental health and seek to create a mentally healthy society if they are not given the opportunity to prioritise their own mental health. How can a person understand the need to provide care and decide on the best type of care to provide if they have not acknowledged and faced up to this need in themselves?

One of the biggest casualties in Irish society over the last eight years has been the loss of some of our humanity. We are quite rightly very angry and want to hold people to account for what happened. Angry people make bad decisions.

This election should be about restoring our belief and faith in Irish society.

We should feel proud of the public debates and of the issues and principles we are prepared to consider. We should want our children to be engaged in what is happening, modelling for them how democracy and healthy societies work.

The standards we set for this election will not only reflect how well we are recovering from the last eight years of trauma but will also indicate our expectations and intentions for our future.

Paul Gilligan is CEO of St Patrick's Mental Health Services, a Clinical Psychologist, and author of 'Raising Emotionally Healthy Children', Veritas

Sunday Independent

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