The changing face of Mental Health in Ireland

Several moons ago when I was a young-ish student in the University of Limerick I worked on a group project which examined the various aspects of mental health. My role was to look at the taboo and stigmatization surrounding mental health in Ireland; euphemisms used and their impact. After reading a wealth of material that specifically focused on people’s attitude towards mental health I contacted Mental Health Ireland and interviewed Ted Tierney, the Deputy Chief Executive Officer. I was thrilled that he not only took the time to answer my questions in depth, he also provided me with the additional material I was able to use.

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This interview was conducted in April 2013, but three years on the issues at hand are more relevant than ever considering the reallocation of €12 million from the mental health budget. When I began sourcing surveys at the time I found the most recent available to me was published in 2007. With cuts to services looming and what I personally feel is an apathetic stance from some of our politicians I felt it was appropriate to dig this interview out.

Last Saturday the annual Darkness Into Light walk for Pieta House saw thousands getting up in the middle of the night to walk through the cities around the country and abroad, raising money and awareness for the organisation. People affected by suicide, people who lost friends or family to suicide, people who previously had suicidal thoughts or had attempted suicide walked, and for many it’s not their first time. Every year the crowd gets bigger – a clear sign that stigma is reducing and more people realise that those afflicted with mental health problems, specifically those with suicidal or self-harm tendencies need support instead of being isolated for something they have little control over without the right assistance.

Pieta House is an incredible service to so many but more options are required. Their sessions, while extremely beneficial are limited because of the volume of people that need their help. As you will see from the first question I posed to Ted, our former government had a rather different slant on issues in this area when this interview took place. Nevertheless, stigmatization, awareness, and support are all still prevalent today.

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Q: With so much talk of action in the media/government to combat issues such as depression and suicide, why is mental health still such a taboo issue for people in Ireland?

A: The topic of Stigma and Discrimination in the arena of Mental Health is a contentious issue.We in Ireland despite having a long tradition of being, in general, a caring people,have a tendency to stigmatize people with Mental health issues. The research will tell us that this is part historical but in essence it is a Societal issue.We must remember that the closure of the old Psychiatric institutions is relatively new to us in Ireland and indeed in some areas the Institutions still exist and are in functional use.

Within our formal education system we have also paid lip service to Mental Health Education and Promotion, relying heavily on the delivery of Academia as opposed to the Social Personal and Health Education of our students. The Research will also inform us that Education on issues such as Depression and Suicide is the real way to counteract Stigma and Discrimination,as it is the ignorance of the real issues that creates negative connotations related to Mental Health.

Q: Do you think that contemporary Irish culture plays a part in how we view mental health or is it learned behaviour (i.e. how our parents, family members might view the issue)?

A: I think it is a combination of both factors i.e we are slow to inform and educate ourselves on Mental Health issues and it can be only as we or someone close to us becomes ill that we really inform ourselves on the issue.
Learned behaviour is part of our conscious and unconscious learning and if we are reared in an environment of negativity towards an issue this can take some time to unlearn.

Q: Is there specific demographic that you have seen indicating a more contemporary approach ore than others d it’s hang-ups?mental health

A: I think the younger people in Irish Society (16-35) have a better understanding of Mental Health Issues as they are growing up in an age of more accessible knowledge and informal settings the delivery of SPHE programmes in schools has helped to break the taboos on the subject.
Q: Often those who take a certain stance on mental health can see a person’s condition as not being serious, as someone being “different” or that it shouldn’t be talked about. Is there any other attitudes that you have come across in general or is there one that is most common in Ireland?

A: This attitude comes down to the extent of our knowledge of the subject matter.Those who are informed will be aware of the potential detrimental impact of any Mental Health Issue on any individual.For example, acute or chronic stress related illness (though dismissed by many as frivolous) can impact hugely on all aspects of our health.Again accurate information and education is the key.

Q: Many people who suffer from a mental health problem can themselves feel that it is taboo to discuss with family or friends, why is this so? Should those with mental health conditions be guided towards explaining their illness to close family and friends so that they can show they are no different to others and if so, how could this be implemented?

A: The stigma and fear of discrimination related to Mental illness can be the most preventative factor in informing those close to us of the illness.For example despite some progress been made,Employers can have a dreadfully negative attitude to a staff member reporting a mental illness.Indeed, families who are not informed can be dismissive of a close one coming forward with their diagnosis,as they may lack the understanding of the fact that Recovery is possible with all mental illnesses and that people can and do live fulfilled lives.Families need to be educated on the facts as much as the person with the illness as their support and understanding are essential in the recovery process.

Q: There are a number of euphemisms people use about people who have a mental health condition. These include: ‘screw loose’, ‘lost the plot’, ‘ready for the men in white coats’, ‘not the full shilling’, etc. Why do people use these terms and what effect do you think they might have?

A: I think we Irish must have created euphemisms as we seem to use them as our coping mechanism around issues that we feel personally or collectively uncomfortable in dealing with.
The effects on the person with the illness can be hugely damaging as the labeling that we attach to mental illness is in itself stigmatising and discriminatory.We don’t hear people with physical health problems being described with Euphemisms,yet they have an illness which is an illness by its name and definition.

LINKS:
Mental Health Ireland:

Pieta House:

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