The Irish media have an absolutely horrific attitude to the conversation about mental health issues, mental illness and suicidal ideation. Let’s just start with some stats:
- Between 1987 and 1998 in this country, suicide rates doubled.
- Ireland has the 4th highest rate of suicide in Europe (15.7 per 100,000 for 15-24 year olds)
- About 50% of the LGBT community have engaged in self-harm, and are seven times more likely to take their own lives than heterosexuals.
- Suicide is far more prevalent amongst young men than women in Ireland, with around 386 male suicides versus 100 female suicides in 2010.
This is a problem. It’s a big, big problem. As a country, we are not talking about this. It’s not enough that we’re willing to share an article or two by a GAA player or other celebrity, or that we wear a wristband for that campaign that gave out free chocolate bars that time. We need to have the conversation, and we need to have it today, every day, until we see this rate reduced to zero, and until we know that the people who surround us feel safe being who they are in their good times and their bad times.
I’ll start with a piece of my own story, in the hopes that it’ll make some difference. Recently, I’ve done lots of stuff with college and my students’ union and whatever else, and I’ve had this incredible outpouring of support from people. I’ve made the best friends I’ve ever had this year. People often remark that I’m a “strong” person, because I’m vocal and tend to give off the appearance that I’m not phased by anything. People recently have been hugely supportive of my running for a part time position on the SU executive, with other elects saying they’re delighted they’ll get to work with me and that I’m a “great speaker” and commenting that I’m intelligent.
But here’s the thing. I’ve suffered with clinical depression for years. I’ve had a mixture of counselling and medical advice for it. It sucks balls, you guys. The fact that people have commented so positively on so many aspects of my personality makes absolutely no difference to my situation, I still suffer with depression. That does not mean I’m not grateful; I am. That does not mean that you shouldn’t wish well upon someone you think does well if they suffer with mental health issues; you should. I’m still a regular person. I’m still a daughter, sister, friend, colleague, fellow student. I’m still me. This is one part of who I am, it doesn’t define me.
For the last few days, the weather has been phenomenal where I live. The sun’s been shining, there hasn’t been a cloud in the sky. While it’s nice to dip out for a run to the beach when it’s like that, I’m also smothered with hay fever and feel like my sinuses are full of concrete. This is my body’s reaction to pollen, and I sometimes take antihistamines to counteract that. I’m not in control of my hay fever. I can’t sit down with my immune system and convince it that pollen is not a threat, my body reacts the way it does and that’s it. This might be a dodgy analogy but it makes sense to me. My mind sometimes goes blank, and I feel sad about everything. Everything. Nothing feels worthy of happiness. Sometimes if I start to feel truly happy about something, I’ll be stopped in my tracks by this gut wrenching feeling that it’s all going to be taken away, even if I have no reason to believe it will. This is the reality of depression.
When someone suffers in this way and it’s serious, they can become suicidal. It’s worth mentioning that you can continually suffer badly with a mental health issue and never feel suicidal, and that not all suicidal people suffer with a serious mental health issue. People who feel this way are not ignoring their friends and family. They are not oblivious to what is going to happen if they follow through with their wishes, in fact they’re more aware of what’s going to happen that you are. Articles, blogs, videos and whatever other media that vilify people who feel this way and try the “Would they ever think of their family”, “they have no idea the destruction they’re causing” approach need to fuck right off. It’s nonsense. You cannot approach people with depression like this, it does not work. Now we’ve made leaps and bounds in understanding that this approach is wrong, but I’m seeing it start to crop up again recently and it’s just plainly incorrect. You wouldn’t come to me in a fit of sneezing in the sunshine and say “Joanne would you just stop it with the hayfever, you’re spreading your germs everywhere and it’s not fair”. So don’t do the same to these people.
Now, I’m lucky. I’m in a position where I have a phenomenally supportive group of friends who are all open about this. I know there is a group of people I can go to when I feel like this. I know they won’t sit me down and try to pretend that everything is actually alright, because to me it doesn’t feel that way, and no amount of convincing can change that. I’m including a little cartoon below that perfectly captures the kind of approach people with depression need. I hope this is some kind of food for thought for people. I hope that you’ll go to your friends in the pub, over cheeky exam drinks in your houses, over coffee on your campuses and in between conversations about football, that new avicii song and who’s shifting who, you’ll ask your friends how they’re feeling. Ask them how they’re doing. Ask them how their mental health is, if there’s anything they’d like to talk about. And finally, I just want to mention Jigsaw, who are one of the most phenomenal charities I’ve ever come across and have centres set up around the country with support services for people who suffer with mental health issues between the ages of 12 and 25. They are extraordinary, so approachable and so effective. If you’re trying to find a free, impartial, friendly service, I couldn’t recommend them highly enough, please go and talk to them.