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Lifting veil of secrecy on suicide and talking about mental health

WE have all heard them uttered on the radio or in newspapers. We haven't even noticed them but they perpetuate a blinkered vision of mental health issues by Irish society.

When suicide is reported on, we get phrases such as "died suddenly and unexpectedly" or "gardai are not looking for anyone in connection with the death". We overhear talk about so-and-so who "has taken to the bed" (which translates as "is incapacitated with depression"). They are the euphemistic outfits continually placed on the mentally ill.

The issue of why Ireland is still unable to speak the language of mental health was the subject for a recent talk in Dublin's Button Factory venue. It, along with a concert that night, was the work of First Fortnight, an initiative that began last year and is now run in collaboration with Amnesty International. The event sought to highlight mental health prejudice and discrimination, which has dodged the "ism" radar until only relatively recently.

Telling me more about First Fortnight is JP Swaine, one of its co-founders. Mr Swaine lost a brother to suicide at the age of 16, and as a mental health professional he sees firsthand the problems people encounter during these opening two weeks of the year.

"We have a curious Irish tradition of storing up trouble, and Christmas in this country takes a whole lot longer than it takes in other western Christian countries. Consequently, it throws us out of routine and away from our working life, our colleagues, our normal supports and also forces us back into a very intense situation with our families," he says. "So when these two weeks come to an end, it can be a very raw time for a lot of people."

Research undertaken by Amnesty International saw 95.4 per cent of 300 interviewees reporting some level of unfair treatment as a result of their mental health problem, while 86 per cent experienced some level of distress as a result of discrimination. Mental health prejudice makes it more difficult for the ailed to step forward and seek help, be treated normally in the workplace or shake off the damaged-goods label.

Making up the panel were author Colm Toibin, 'Irish Independent' legal editor Dearbhail McDonald, Siobhan Barry of College of Psychiatry, Ireland and Caroline McGuigan, CEO of Suicide or Survive.

Chairing the discussion was Colm O'Gorman, executive director of Amnesty International, Ireland.

"What we're talking about here is not direct discrimination in human rights terms," he explains. "We're talking about the level of prejudice and discrimination people experience based on the prejudice each of us in society might hold around an issue like mental health. And if that's to change it can only be through self-examination and thought."

A last-minute replacement for author and GAA man Liam Hayes, Dearbhail McDonald turned out to be a resounding voice amid the panel; her career as a journalist, her experience, and her observations on the law providing much insight. At one stage, she had asked for a show of hands among the couple of hundred attendees from those who had "felt so bad that they had worried about themselves", prompting a near-unanimous response.

"When you're a writer or a journalist, you're in the business of observing," she says. "I see people with mental health problems in every walk of life, and it's about having much more openness and discussion around it and accepting that this is the normal ebbs and flows of life, and that sometimes we need a little bit more help than at other times."

This is key. What we do all have in common is that every one of us has some experience with mental health problems, if not in ourselves then in a family member or an acquaintance. Yet it remains that unnerving elephant in the corner that we feel is inappropriate or too confounding to look at. Why is this?

"In Ireland," Mr O'Gorman suggests, "we have a very particular attitude towards anybody who hasn't conformed to our ideas of what we are meant to have been, and our ideas of what we are meant to have been as a society over the history of the State have often been very rigid."

This would very much argue in favour of an annual statement like First Fortnight. If discussion and exposure can change attitudes to drink-driving, the Catholic Church and racism, mental health discrimination could follow suit.

"There's no reason," Mr Swaine insists, "why this event can't be coupled with theatre, visual arts, poetry within this two-week period to raise the profile even further so you create a multidisciplinary arts festival in the first two weeks of the year, every single year. People have an instant reaction that it's about mental health prejudice and discrimination. By making it annual, credible and diverse, you start to affect people's immediate responses to the issue throughout the year."

"We weren't looking for a symposium to come up with a solution to a problem," Mr O'Gorman explained afterwards. "We were looking for a conversation, because . . . that kind of is the answer. We acknowledge it; we name it as a fact; we begin to talk about how we've experienced it; how we might be part of it and promote thoughtful consideration of the issue. That's where change comes from."

Sunday Independent