| 17.3°C Dublin

Carol Hunt: Inside the mind of a true woman of Ireland

Surprised? Ha! Shocked into a raging silence more like. This was the reaction of then Taoiseach Charles Haughey to the election of Mary Robinson as President of Ireland in 1990.

As described by Robinson herself in her memoir Everybody Matters, "All Haughey could say to me, out of the corner of a rather bitter mouth, was, 'Congratulations. Your car is waiting outside.'"

Reading Robinson's book, it's impossible not to be overcome with emotion at the memory of that unique moment in Irish history. For me -- and most of my female contemporaries -- it was without doubt the greatest political and social achievement we were likely to see in our lifetimes, simply encapsulated by the anecdote Robinson remembers hearing from her driver, of a woman telling her husband who asks her to bring him a cuppa: "Make your own tea, things have changed around here."

There are many surprises in Robinson's engrossing memoir. For those who have -- perhaps due to some strange pseudo-liberal or 'left-wing' agenda, or perhaps just plain sour grapes -- always denied the very prominent role Eoghan Harris had in Robinson's electoral success, Mary sets the record straight.

Plainly, generously and with affection she writes: "We took Eoghan up on his offer of practical help and he treated us to a stunning intellectual analysis of how to run the campaign ... You have to have seen Eoghan Harris in full flow to appreciate the experience: the breakneck pace, the wit, the revelatory insights that had us going, 'Ah yes, of course.' There was genius in it."

Following her magnificent victory, she says: "Eoghan Harris helped me to prepare a rousing acceptance speech." This was the famous, "mna na hEireann, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system" -- a piece of pure rhetorical genius.

If Harris never had any other political achievements (and he has had many), the election of Mary Robinson guarantees his place in the pantheon of those who have genuinely "done the State some service". And by telling the truth of his involvement Robinson has served us all.

Another surprise in the book -- and yet another service by truth -- is the candid manner in which Robinson describes her descent into "nervous-breakdown territory" following her appointment as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1997. And in a week where yet another report shows how we still stigmatise and refuse to understand the nature of "mental health issues", Robinson's blunt description of how her mental health deteriorated rapidly when hit by unexpected setbacks and challenges, is a rebuttal of the ignorant prejudices and assumptions that so many continue to hold about mental health.

In case you missed it, a survey (by St Patrick's University Hospital in Dublin) released to coincide with World Suicide Day last week found that almost a third of Irish people would not willingly accept someone with a mental health problem as a close friend, 62 per cent said they would discriminate against hiring someone with a history of mental illness, 42 per cent felt that undergoing treatment for a mental health issue was a sign of failure, and over a fifth thought that people with mental health issues were of below average intelligence.

As a person with a history of a mental health problem, after laughing my head off at the stupidity, I found this amazing. And I wonder will Robinson, after detailing her own story of mental pain, find it extraordinary also? Ditto, I wonder will those people who hold such strange prejudice against so many of their contemporaries, read Mary Robinson's account, shrug and say, "Oh but that's different -- she wasn't really 'ill', she was just a bit stressed out."

Which brings us to the core point: very few of us understand what the phrase "mental health issues" means at all. Perhaps we can blame the old Cartesian concept of the "ghost in the machine" for much of our confusion; that mind and body are distinct and separate entities, when of course we now know that they are not. (As demonstrated last week in an Irish Independent interview with June Shannon under the headline, "I went to my GP with back pain and ended up in a mental hospital." Google it.)

What Robinson describes in her memoir is how easy it is to slip, unknowingly, into a state of mental ill-health. A series of unfortunate events, as it were, is enough to render the mind disturbed with accompanying physical ailments.

In Robinson's case, she feels guilt and great sorrow at leaving the office of president early in order to take up her position in the UN: "it was ill-judged on my part, a serious miscalculation". The stress of work piles up, the horrors of what she has to deal with, the lack of professional support -- and gradually her mental health deteriorates.

She first finds she needs sleeping tablets -- which "only compounded the problem". A speech she gives is embarrassingly publicised as the "High Commissioner says the UN has 'lost the plot!"; she feels "exhausted and depressed" and eventually, on a visit home to Ireland for Christmas her family, "all expressed concerns about my health, Ollie [her brother] most vociferously, warning me that I was straying into nervous-breakdown territory and needed somehow to pull myself together".

In caring for your mental health, knowledge, awareness is everything. Sometimes, though, it's hard to know if your reaction to a problem is exacerbated by your mental condition -- which is it that's talking, you or the illness? This is why family and friends can provide great service by watching out for you -- by saying bluntly, as Mary's brother did, "you are not well".

Robinson's description of how she recovered -- spending a lot of time outdoors, going for long walks and taking time to appreciate and meditate on the "permanence of the natural surroundings" -- mirrors the story of Norwegian ex-Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, who sensationally publicised his need to take nearly a month sick leave due to "a depressive reaction to the constant stress of running a country". Bondevik kick-started his recovery with anti-depressants, but then took time out in the countryside; walking, sleeping, meditating, exercising and reacquainting himself with reality.

It's good for all of us to know that presidents and prime ministers suffer from "mental health issues" too.

In this book, Robinson, by telling us the real stories -- not the stories we might wish to hear, or the ones we think should be true -- has once again done us a great service. It's good to reflect that, in electing Mary Robinson, mna na hEireann made a damn fine choice.

Sunday Independent