Sunday 25 February 2018

Like Olivia, we are all avoiding the abyss

Olivia O'Leary talking about her depression was a game-changer, says Brendan O'Connor. She even mentioned drink

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan

Brendan O'Conno

Olivia O'Leary's intervention in the discussion on mental health in her radio column on RTE's Drivetime last week was a significant one and will perhaps have spoken to people who may have paid scant regard to the conversation up to now. There has been an admirable upsurge in the number of people talking openly about mental-health issues in Ireland in the last few years and, multiplied by the power of social media and the internet, this conversation has certainly changed attitudes towards mental health. This new conversation around mental health has been spearheaded by some would say unlikely figures, like the former rugby player and musician Bressie, broadcaster Eoghan McDermott, who spoke carefully about his own issues with self-harming, and Conor Cusack, one of a number of GAA players to speak out about emotional fragility in recent years.

To say the stigma around mental illness is gone would be overstating it. You're still going to be reluctant to tell your boss you need time off because you're depressed. You're still not going to admit on a first date that you have a history of mental illness. But there is more of a likelihood now that if a guy on a football team in some parish down the country is having emotional problems or mental-health issues, he is going to tell his teammates. And, more importantly, there is a likelihood that his teammates are going to respond in a helpful and non-judgmental way.

What Bressie and Co and all who followed them on social media and on the airwaves have done is the start of a process. And the aim of stage one of the process was to make it OK to talk about mental health issues. To make it, in the words of Jim Breen and the Cycle again Suicide movement, "OK not to be OK". It was a valuable step in a country that has clung to secrets and lies, where many of our mental-health problems actually stem from the fact that we don't talk, that we repress so much, within families and society in general. In a country where men were silent, getting them to talk was a valuable start of something.

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