Sunday 18 November 2018

Time for a national conversation about our mental health

Phil Mac Giolla Bhain says that by appearing in an ad campaign about mental health he has done his bit to get us talking

Phil Mac Giolla Bhain features in Amnesty International’s campaign against mental-health discrimination
Phil Mac Giolla Bhain features in Amnesty International’s campaign against mental-health discrimination

THERE is an iron law of journalism that you must never become the story, but sometimes iron laws need to be broken.

I'm used to seeing my by-line in print and my picture beside it, but this time it's different.

Recently I agreed to become a 'face' of an Amnesty International campaign to halt discrimination against people with mental health problems.

People like me.

When you see me in the coming weeks in a newspaper advert or on a billboard or keeping you company as you wait for a bus, don't see a 'depressive', just see me.

Sometimes I'm down. The last bad bout was about two years ago.

If you have suffered depression then you will know how crippling it is, even when everyone around you knows and understands that it isn't your choice to be depressed and it isn't your fault.

Feeling that you need to hide it, to conceal it from everyone, doubles the burden and compounds the problem.

Twenty years ago, I saw a colleague come back to work after a period off with depression. It was a very stressful environment -- a social-work office. She had bucket loads of reasons to be depressed.

When she returned she was well, but the people in the office implicitly decided that she would never be better again.

It was all very 'caring' of course, but 'Mary' (not her real name) was never again afforded full status as a colleague to be taken seriously.

The lesson was learnt. At that point I enjoyed my professional status as a social worker and valued colleague. I didn't want to lose that.

A year later, although usually full of energy and essentially optimistic in outlook, I became the exact opposite.

I went to my local GP. Ironically, he and I had worked together professionally with me wearing my psychiatric social worker hat.

He immediately diagnosed depression and signed me off work.

However, we had a conversation that I haven't forgotten: "I won't put 'depression' on this sick note, Phil. That won't leave you. I'm going to put down 'exhaustion'. You are exhausted, but that's just a symptom of the depression."

When I came back to work my reputation as someone who had a valued professional opinion was intact because I was viewed as a driven workaholic.

'Burnout' or 'work stress' was better than 'depression'.

It is to my recurring shame that I stayed silent when 'Mary' was being quietly disregarded.

The only thing a new colleague needed to know about her was that she suffered from depression.

Labelling someone with a psychiatric tag is a very powerful, disabling act.

The Soviet authorities in the old USSR used psychiatry to destroy the reputation of their internal opponents. It worked.

I now realise that I've been periodically suffering from depression for the last 25 years.

More importantly, I now know why.

Part of my healing was being honest -- firstly with myself and then with those around me about the black cloak that is sometimes thrown over me. I don't invite it, but I'm now ready when I feel the darkness closing in on me again.

Depression used to mug me. Now I can read the early signs.

Some of the greatest creative minds in history have been periodically crippled by mental health problems. Space doesn't allow me to list all of them, but among their number are: Beethoven, Van Gogh, F Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath and Leo Tolstoy.

When you read this list of people who left an enduring legacy you don't think of a psychiatric label, you remember their contributions.

So it should be with the rest of us. Our mental health problem shouldn't define us.

Our growing suicide rate among men, especially young men, is evidence that many find it very difficult to confide in a friend or seek professional help for depression.

This fact is not unconnected to society's general contempt for anyone with a mental health problem. It is a huge and enduring bigotry that disempowers and stigmatises people who are already highly vulnerable.

The prejudice and discrimination experienced by people with mental health problems in Ireland is a bigotry that we should no longer, as a society, tolerate.

Anyone who has lived in this republic over the last 20 years will know how much attitudes can change. Seemingly common-sense assumptions can dissolve once public conversation is under way.

So let's start this conversation now.

I'm glad I've decided to become the story here. Sometimes you just have to.

This is a job for all of us. This is my bit of it.

Phil Mac Giolla Bhain is an author and freelance journalist.

Sunday Independent

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