Why is it still taboo to talk about mental health in Ireland? It’s 2013, and it’s time we grew up.
Of the hundreds of people you see and interact with every day, it estimated that one in four of them has suffered from a mental illness in their lifetime. Whether it is depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or something else on the wide spectrum of mental illnesses, you can probably think of someone close to you, maybe even yourself, who is part of that quarter of society.
With so many people carrying these invisible illnesses around with them in their day to day lives, why are we so afraid to talk about them? We will gladly tell anyone who will listen about the time we broke our arm or how a last second appendectomy saved our life, but when it comes to issues of our mental health, we are expected to ignore any problems we have.
This is not a problem that is unique to Ireland, but it does feel more prevalent in our society. We live in a country where more than twice as many people take their own lives than die on our roads each year. In 2011, there were 525 reported suicides in Ireland, compared to 186 road deaths for the same year.
As a culture, our attitude towards mental health is disgraceful. We somehow managed to label mental illnesses as both shameful and quirky simultaneously by self-diagnosing ourselves with serious conditions like OCD or depression, and then telling those who legitimately suffer from these afflictions to just get on with their lives.
Whether you alienate or envy those with mental illnesses, you are not giving them and their illness the respect they deserve. Mental illnesses are no different from physical illnesses, in that they need to be treated correctly in order to minimize the pain of those who have them. The only way in which physical and mental illnesses are not alike is in the fact that we cannot simply look at someone and tell that they have to live with their bipolar disorder.
Make no mistake, those with mental health problems have to live with those issues every single day. Depression is not just feeling down from time to time. In some cases, depression can cause a person to be physically ill or it can lead to insomnia, just to name a few of the physical side effects.
That is not to say that only people who exhibit physical side effects are suffering from depression. Depression is a notoriously silent disease, with many sufferers hiding in broad daylight for fear of what their peers might think of them. Despite what many of us say out loud to others, it is common for someone to refuse to admit that they are suffering from a mental illness and see asking for help as a humiliating admission of a weakness in themselves.
No matter how many times it has been said, it can always be said again; seeking help for a mental illness is no different to seeking help for a physical one. There seems to be, to some degree, a belief that mental illnesses are something that people can simply push through by sheer force of will. The idea persists that someone who is able to have a laugh can’t possibly be depressed.
But that’s the thing about mental illnesses; unless you are constantly showing the symptoms of your problem, it is easy for others, and yourself, to dismiss it. A broken bone is a broken bone; clear for all to see, but that is not the case for many milder forms of mental illness.
Even our attitudes to addiction are wrong. Perhaps it is part of our Catholic heritage that we feel the need to attach blame to everything. We blame alcoholics for letting themselves become alcoholics, as if alcoholism is caused simply by drinking too much. We confuse a symptom with a cause and so we end up blaming the person who desperately needs our help to get sober.
We ignore the fact that an addiction is often due to an underlying psychological issue, while other times it can just be down to the dumb luck of a genetic predisposition to addiction, often both. Alcoholism, in particular, does not seem to be taken as seriously as it should by our society since we do not like to be told that we drink too much.
Still, there remains much ignorance of how to treat someone with a mental illness. There are those who claim that pills cannot possibly be the answer, that they will only make things worse, while others will swear by the medication route and encourage you to take a pill for any ailment. As ever, this is an entirely simplified version of the story.
In effect, the mental illness spectrum is so large that it is impossible to just give one cure. You can’t expect to mend a broken bone through chemotherapy; much like treating a case of depression will require something different than it would to treat pyromania. Even within a particular illness, we seem to forget that every case is different and different methods will work for different people. It is truly baffling how differently our society treats mental and physical illnesses.
As we move further in to the 21st century, we are working hard to remove the stigmas surrounding so many things, like homosexuality and sexual promiscuity. We must extend this action further, as we cannot afford to keep treating mental illness with the same ignorance and fear as we have done until now.
This article also appeared in issue 12 of volume XIX of the University Observer.