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Take the stigma out of mental illness

Resource type: News

The Irish Times | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]


Irish Times, HeadstrongTaboos could be broken around issues such as depression – which leads to more deaths than road accidents

‘IF THERE WAS one key social justice issue you would pursue in government, what would it be?’’

This question, posed in the dying minutes of last week’s final leaders’ debate, forced the would-be taoisigh to pin their colours to the mast. All eyes were on Enda Kenny, king of the polls.

“I feel the priority should be the 300,000 people who suffer from mental illness,” said Kenny, “the 75,000 people who attempt self-harm and those who have the tragedy of suicide visit their families.”

So, with Kenny and likely kingmaker Gilmore promising support, what are those at the coalface of mental health in Ireland actually asking for?

For Kevin Smyth, chief executive of Aware, it’s a public health campaign to tackle the stigma of depression.

“I sit in awe of what the Road Safety Authority has done to bring down road deaths,” says Smyth. “I’d love to see that kind of thinking going into tackling depression.”

Smyth believes a communications campaign, using TV, billboards and programmes for schools, is needed. Some 400,000 people suffer from depression. “We want to see that number coming down and more people looking for help,” he said.

Citing World Health Organisation figures that put depression as the number two cause of the loss of healthy living for people between 15 and 44, rising to the number two cause for everybody by 2020, Smyth says it makes sense to “keep people out of hospitals, away from medications and using talk therapy instead”.

“I think if the government tries to deal with the stigma, there are actually enough of us out there providing voluntary services. We want more people coming to us for assistance.”

Padraig Allen, who was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder in 1968 and is an Aware volunteer, agrees. “The politicians can’t offer money, because they haven’t got it, but they can help deal with the awful problem of stigma,” he says.

“They need to come on board with moral and cultural support by going on local radio or the national broadcasters and expressing the view that depression and other mental health issues are an illness like any other,” says Allen, himself a former committee clerk at Leinster House.

Tony Bates, chief executive of youth mental health charity Headstrong, worked in the public health system for 27 years. He saw that adults “being admitted again and again”, had one thing in common: “their difficulties emerged in adolescence”.

“Eighty per cent of what becomes a mental health disorder in adult life emerges by the age of 20,” he says. Yet this is where the services are weakest. While there are some great agencies around the county, they are “isolated and fragmented”. He’s asking for more co-ordination, so that “who to go to is very clear to young people and the stigma of accessing that help is removed”.

The message to government from Headstrong’s Youth Advisory Panel, a group of young people who shape its programmes, is clear: “Talk to young people. Don’t tell us what you think we need. Ask us.”

Panel member Eoin Plunceid (24), from Mount Merrion in Dublin, says mental health care needs to start in schools. “Teachers need to have some sort of basic training and awareness around young people’s mental health.”

Darren Scully (18), of Ballymun, agrees. He says often teachers want to help, but don’t know how. They both feel that existing curriculum time dedicated to CSP and SPHE needs to have a greater emphasis on mental health.

For Ruth Baker (19), from Tralee, Co Kerry, community programmes such as Headstrong’s Jigsaw can help to tackle taboos: “It’s an Irish thing. You’re supposed to get on with your life, suck it up and deal with it . . . we need to put mental health out there in the community so that it’s not taboo and people aren’t scared to ask for help.”

Pia O’Farrell (25), from Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, wants emphasis on “education and prevention measures around youth mental health before the big problems arise”.

Scully agrees. “If they catch the earlier signs of self-harm and depression, if the support is there for young people experiencing stress, family problems, exam pressure or bullying, will the Government not save money in the long run?”

For Joan Freeman, founder and chief executive of Pieta House, a centre for the prevention of self-harm and suicide, funding from the new government is key.

“By this day next week, 10 people will have died by suicide and the following week, there will be another 10,” says Freeman. “There’s almost double the amount of people dying by suicide than in road accidents, yet the funding for road safety is €20 million and for suicide prevention, it’s just €5 million.

Freeman is calling for the new government to develop a national strategy: “with a national co-ordinated approach. I know we would see a huge reduction in suicide”. 

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Headstrong is an Atlantic grantee.

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