Sunday 25 August 2019

What planet are you on? Healthy minds matter

Leo Varadkar is living in La La Land if he thinks people with mental health issues can wait for better services, says Carol Hunt

Acting health minister Leo Varadkar. Photo: Frank McGrath
Acting health minister Leo Varadkar. Photo: Frank McGrath
Carol Hunt

Carol Hunt

It must be nice to live on another planet. One where everyone is feeling the effects of economic recovery; where homelessness is not at crisis levels; where debt isn't a constant worry and where no one suffers from mental health issues. It's a place where life is so pleasant and uncomplicated that few people suffer from anxiety or stress or depression, let alone terrible things like schizophrenia, manic depression (bipolar) or suicidation. And those few who do? Well, it's made very plain to them that they are causing the nice, contented people acute embarrassment - as well as taking money that they don't deserve - and really, they should do the decent thing and just feck off.

This is the planet that acting health minister Leo Varadkar and some of his friends in our 'caretaker' government live on. That is the only explanation I can come up with for the contempt they have for the increasing number of people who need to avail of mental health services.

Because if they didn't live on another planet, they would know that the plan to "borrow" €12m from an already paltry budget is reprehensible, immoral and cruel. These fellas have form here. They tried to take the entire €35m supposedly "ring-fenced" for mental health at the last budget, but were prevented from doing so because junior minister Kathleen Lynch stayed home on budget day until they relented. I don't know about you but I'd like to move to Leo's planet, it must be lovely to live in a place where you don't have to listen to people on the radio like Fr Paddy Byrne telling you about the eight people who died by suicide in Laois during the past three weeks alone. That's eight people. In 21 days. In Laois.

Recently, while canvassing door to door, I heard stories which would break your heart. One woman told me the about the death by suicide of her young son which nearly destroyed her family. A death which would have been averted if only our mental health services were fit for purpose. Her husband fell apart after the tragedy. Their marriage nearly followed suit. He lost his job because of grief. She cried telling me.

This was not a story in isolation. There were many. Far too many. Regardless of income, class or age, hundreds of thousands of people are frustrated, in pain and despair - some literally dying - because Leo and his comrades are intent on staying put on their own makey-up planet. The planet where mental distress does not exist. Or if it does you ignore it, downgrade its support services and give the money to more deserving causes.

This is state-sponsored stigmatisation of the mentally ill. And we wonder why so many people are afraid to admit they have problems?

Imagine living in a place which didn't have one of the highest rates of male suicide in the world? A place where people were able to access services when they needed them to save their lives, and not have their families go on radio programmes to lament the utter contempt in which the State held their - now deceased - loved ones?

A place where you wouldn't be opening up the paper every morning to the news that yet another man has died by suicide because he couldn't pay his debts, or that another woman has walked into the sea because she couldn't get to see anyone who could talk to her on a Friday evening. A place where we wouldn't be afraid, as parents, of the rise in young male deaths or young girls self-harming and the so-called "cluster-suicides" which experts fear are becoming more common in groups which are overly dependent on each other, particularly through social media.

Unfortunately those of us not living on Planet Leo can only imagine such a world. Mental distress and death by suicide is increasing, and we cannot - like Leo et al - ignore this. Yet a recent report from St Patrick's University Hospital showed that stigma against people who suffer mental health difficulties is "engrained in Irish society".

The survey found that only 53pc of respondents agree that people with a mental health difficulty are trustworthy. Sixty-seven pc agree that Irish people view being treated for a mental health difficulty as a sign of personal failure. Only 21pc believe that Irish employers would be comfortable employing someone with a mental health problem and 29pc of respondents would not trust someone with a previous mental health difficulty to babysit.

As a woman who has suffered mental health issues in the past - and I have written about them in detail - I find this astonishing and very sad. Whenever I argue with friends or colleagues who hold similar opinions (and there are far more than you would think) I hear them say: "Ah, but you're different, you weren't really that bad, were you?"

Well, if being so clinically depressed some decades ago that I experienced chronic suicidation wasn't "really that bad", I'm not sure what is. But then again, I'm letting the side down by admitting that, aren't I? Even writing this I feel that I'm committing some unspoken faux pas that commands us not to reveal our darkest nights, for fear they may be contagious, or that we may be dismissed as pathetic.

And so, even with wonderful role models who speak out, like Conor Cusack and Bressie, some young people are afraid to express how they feel or tell anyone if they are in emotional difficulty. Recently there has been a sharp rise in teenage mental health problems, with many young people suffering more and more from anxiety, depression and from panic attacks. Why is this? Do we expect too much from our children? Are we adding to their anxiety by encouraging them to aim for excellent exam results while they worry about body image and a future of low-paying jobs and high mortgage costs?

And our older generation face stigma also if they admit to mental health issues. Professor Sabina Brennan, research psychologist, TCD, told me that: "The fact that the high risk of dying by suicide in men over 60 is rarely discussed demonstrates how their lives are less valued by society due to inherent ageism. Arguably it contributes to the high rate of suicide, to be described as a burden on society, to be valued only as a parent or a member of the workforce - take that away and people feel worthless."

Over the past decade a lot has been done to try to destigmatise mental illness, to create public awareness, to explain to those in charge of health budgets that people are in torment, sick and dying because of a lack of services, lack of investment, lack of understanding about the importance of good mental health.

Austerity crippled our public services, and mental health was, as always, relegated to being the so-called Cinderella of the health sector. As if a problem in the mind isn't actually a real problem at all - despite the fact that it can kill you. But we got a lot of lip service from the past government about how they were going to take mental health seriously, they had gotten the message.

It was all lies. They don't give a toss about mental health. Yours, mine or the country's. It's not their problem. The excellent policy document A Vision for Change is now 10 years old and only partially implemented. It's obviously not a government priority, despite the fact that mental health is linked to homelessness, unemployment and addiction.

Even presidents can suffer from mental health issues. Ditto prime ministers and political spin doctors. Mary Robinson, in her memoir Everybody Matters, described her descent into "nervous-breakdown territory" following her appointment as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1997. A series of unfortunate events rendered her "exhausted and depressed" and an intervention from her brother was needed to set her on the road to recovery. In 1998 Norwegian prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik woke up one morning and literally couldn't get out of bed. He said he felt "totally empty, without any value. Everything was black".

In his book The Happy Depressive, former spin doctor Alastair Campbell admitted that he was "often down and sometimes profoundly depressed" and that he occasionally needs medication to deal with it. Celebrities such as Catherine Zeta-Jones, Brooke Shields and Emma Thompson have all been open about their mental health issues. Perhaps Leo would condescend to listen to them? Because he certainly isn't hearing the voices of ordinary Irish people whose health, peace of mind and very lives have been put at risk because of his refusal to live in the real world.

Carol Hunt is a Seanad 2016 candidate for the NUI panel. @carolmhunt

Helpline number: Samaritans, 116123; Aware, 01 6617211.

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