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Don’t let mental health fall off the agenda

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

It was trendy for a while, but then the next big fad came along, and it dropped off the radar. I’m not talking about the fidget spinner, curly kale or Fifty Shades of Grey, rather, mental health. There was a time when you couldn’t switch on the radio or open a paper or Facebook page without someone talking about the ‘scourge’ of suicide or their ‘battle’ with depression. It was a topic that was very much in vogue for a while. So why has it fallen from prominence?  
Mental health, or mental ill-health, is a complex topic, and for all its exposure in the media in recent years, it has been vastly over-simplified. Too often, for example, mental illness is equated solely with depression, resulting in the erasure of the experiences of people who deal with other illnesses like schizophrenia, psychosis, addiction, anxiety and eating disorders. It is often also assumed that (a) a person suffering from depression is likely to be suicidal and (b) depression is always the cause of suicide. Neither of these assumptions is true.  
There has also been an irresponsible tendency in the media to focus on a message of ‘recovery’. A common narrative is that of the young sports star who struggled with depression and is now ‘better’. All very well, but many people never recover; they simply learn to manage their illness. Who’s talking about that?
We are all wired differently, and interventions or treatments that will work for one may not work for another. While it is improving, still stigma exists around the use of medication to treat mental ill-health. This needs to change, as does the tendency to resort to medication in the first instance without addressing root causes or exploring alternative therapies.
Clearly, however, suicide is still a major issue in Ireland. Only last week in this paper, the coroner for North Mayo, Dr Eleanor Fitzgerald, described the rate of death by suicide in this county as ‘alarming’, noting that almost half the deaths she deals with are a result of suicide.
The CSO’s Vital Statistics Yearly Summary for 2017 revealed 392 recorded suicides in Ireland, down slightly from the 399 recorded in 2016. That’s more than one person a day (that we know of); yet this is not deemed a crisis? This is not Dr Eleanor’s first time to draw attention to this issue, but who is listening?  Not, it seems, the Department of Health.
Traditionally, mental-health budgets have been the whipping boy; first to be slashed. Demand for understaffed Child and Adult Mental Health services exceeds demand, with large waiting lists. Public access to counselling services for adults is frankly, laughable (a friend recently got a call for an appointment after two years on a waiting list). The cost of access to private therapy is out of the reach of many. There is a very evident lack of focus on early intervention, which makes little economic or social sense. Those working in the sector are overburdened and frustrated.
Contrast the resourcing of road safety to that of suicide prevention. In 2017, 158 people lost their lives on Irish roads. While working towards the prevention of road deaths is obviously important, County Manager Peter Hynes was correct in his recent assertion that there is an over-emphasis on reducing road deaths at the expense of other issues, including suicide prevention.
However, rather than relying on the State to address the issue, ordinary people need to step up, too. This is not just a medical issue, it is a social one and each of us has a responsibility to start looking out for each other. Happily, there are tools out there to help us do just that.
The HSE is much maligned, but they do offer excellent, internationally recognised training in this area. Awareness (eSuicide), alertness (SAFETalk) and intervention (ASIST) training are all available at little or no cost to groups all around the country, via the National Office for Suicide Prevention. In fact, Crossmolina Deel Rovers GAA will host a SafeTALK training on Wednesday, April 3, in their clubhouse. Any club or organisation can put on this training, and any individual can access it. (For more information, visit www.hse.ie and search for ‘National Office for Suicide Prevention training’.)
It’s important, too, to remember that many among us are fighting our own invisible battles, and a little kindness goes a long way.

MPU Mayo