Why mental health police got it wrong with Sinead
The singer's social media posts make for painful reading, but there's more to them than wailing angst
Published 22/05/2016 | 02:30
There was a wearying familiarity to the brief disappearance of Sinead O'Connor in America last week. First there was a press release from the sheriff's department in Wilmette - the suburb of Chicago where she is living. Throughout that afternoon there were bulletins on CNN and Sky News, reminiscent of the news reports from Dublin last winter concerning her disappearance then. Within a matter of hours Sinead was found. And then, just as swiftly: recriminations, emotional blackmail and the unrestrained fury of her Facebook feed, in which she once again lambasted her family in the most vicious terms imaginable.
For those who have followed the singer's self-destruction, it was all too familiar: tragedy tinged with farce. And then, as before, she was gone from Facebook again. "By now you can set your watch to the cycle of Sinead's meltdowns," a friend of mine said. It seemed callous, but not untrue.
Such cynicism seemed to take sudden hold last week. There was a lot of online comment about Sinead, some of it negative. And that in turn set the alarm bells ringing for the mental health police in this country. After Sinead was located, a number of articles appeared decrying the online response to this latest incident. The trolls who had come out to mock or express incredulity at its seriousness were themselves criticised. On Joe.ie, Tony Cuddihy wrote: "We're one step away from the 'pull-yourself-together' mentality of the 1950s in this country, the shunning of anyone who doesn't speak and act and behave like upstanding people are meant to do."
A Dublin-based counsellor, Owen Connolly, was quoted in the Irish Independent as saying: "We have learned nothing. We're very good at vilifying people, particularly people like Sinead, we can attack them. They go through the most awful time in their lives and they need to be comforted rather than attacked."
Few of us would disagree with the idea that people should not be mocked or attacked for their mental health issues. But in this case the hand-wringing of the mental health police is possible for the same reason that the mindless invective of the trolls is possible: the comfort of distance. Connolly said: "I don't see anyone putting their arm around Sinead O'Connor."
The many people who have tried to comfort Sinead in her blackest depressions will have read that and felt like inviting Mr Connolly to have a go himself. Sinead's family have tried and tried. Countless professionals have tried. Friends have done their best. Eventually, everyone is pushed away.
Sinead herself has speculated on her Facebook page that she has a personality disorder. Inherent in many of the more serious of this type of mental illness is a tendency to spurn sincere attempts at help. There is a limit to the sacrifice any one person must endure before they try, however they can, to live their own lives.
It is grossly simplistic, and deeply lacking in compassion for Sinead's friends and family, to say "someone" needs to just put an arm around her. The situation is more complex than that.
Also simplistic is the idea that negative commentary is harmful to Sinead and that positive, supportive commentary about her public travails are something we should try to guide ourselves toward.
Sinead is not moved by trolls, she faced down a baying mob at Madison Square Garden after all. She's written herself that she is 'amused' by keyboard warriors. And it is probably far fetched to imagine that some of the hundreds of thousands of people she beams out her poisonous open letters to will not have something to say by way of useless rebuttal. But these people are not really the problem. They are not making anything worse for Sinead. More invidious by far is the fan echo chamber, which can be relied upon, en masse, to reinforce her destructive view that everyone is out to get her ("how could they do this to you?" etc).
The attention itself - positive or negative - fuels a type of emotional exhibitionism that could be an asset to an artist. But not for a tortured soul seeking some peace. Whether voyeur or fan, we are all in some way complicit. Yet we can't look away.
Much of the Irish commentary this week portrayed Sinead as the victim of this whole situation. There is no doubt that Sinead is a victim of her demons, and that she deserves our love, patience and compassion. But anyone who has witnessed what has happened to her must also be struck by the many lives the situation is touching. Her children, her siblings, her father, her former partners, all have been drawn into this. All have suffered. But there were no psychologists expressing concern on their behalf this week. The things she writes in her open letters are not printable. They are serious, devastating accusations, laced with profanity and nuclear invective.
Her potential suicide is constantly invoked. The posts make it seem like the only force keeping Sinead alive is white-hot anger. They can not be helping the children, whose private lives she exposes to the scrutiny of millions.
To point this out is not to denigrate Sinead or to marginalise her. She is a beautiful, wonderful talented person, with a dirty sense of humour who loves her kids and is loved by them. There is a core human being who is bigger than her conditions and her troubles.
She is an incredible artist, one of the true Irish greats, and has touched the lives of millions. You can hear your whole life flash by in one of her desolate little yelps. But neither all that, nor sensitivity around the stigma of mental illness, should tempt us to a view of Sinead as a whipping girl for the world. It doesn't tell the whole story. And it feeds into the worst of what she believes about herself.
The things that make me feel the most sad when I look at Sinead's recent social media forays aren't actually the nuclear open letters (in some ways maybe those are the release she needs). It's the video clips she posts, the little Ohrwurms that I know comfort Sinead when she can't find that in another person (just as she comforted many of us, from afar, over the years). They are often incredible discoveries, forgotten gems - she has staggering breadth of reference when it comes to music. One of the more recent ones that stood out was a song by Blind Willie Johnson: Trouble Soon Be Over. It was first recorded in 1928, and you can just hear the dust-bowl despair and oppression in the song which the old man heaves out like a sob.
In the midst of all the chaos this year Sinead stood up from her computer, went into the studio in America, and recorded a stunning version of it.
"God is my strong protection, He's my bosom friend. Trouble arose all around me, I know who'll take me in."
In Sinead's version there's a touch of defiance. She's telling you the pain cannot go on. It's a reminder that she believes in herself still and we must believe in her, too. And that one of these years her sorrows will have an end.