New book looks at how we can build a 'better and happier Ireland'

With a general election looming, now is our chance to help build a better and happier Ireland. Creating a happier country is also one of the themes of a new book by top psychologist Dr Keith Gaynor, writes Ailin Quinlan

It could be worse.

Eight out of 10 people in Ireland and 70% of young people regard themselves as happy, observes clinical psychologist Dr Keith Gaynor, whose new book on happiness and the Irish is published later this week.

“We have voted ourselves one of the happiest countries in the world,” says Gaynor.

Why then has he devoted a significant part of his new book to the topic of How to Build A Happier Country?

Launched as we are all waiting with baited breath for a general election date to be set, Gaynor’s book is a must-read for those preparing to take on the politicians who will shortly appear on our doorsteps to assure us that they will make everything better.

Take, for example, the fact that mental health problems form such a large undercurrent of Irish society — some 23% of the burden of disease in this country is directly attributable to mental health issues, says Gaynor, senior clinical psychologist at the Outpatient Department of St John Of God’s Hospital who adds that some 40% of all disability payments are down to mental ill health.

In fact, government figures show that mental health problems cost the Irish economy €11 billion a year.

We’re not talking about the salaries of healthcare workers here, says Gaynor - we’re talking about the cost of people dropping out of work through absenteeism or illness with a subsequent loss of productivity not to mention the bugbear of early retirement.

Despite this, he says: “Mental health is the elephant in the room of public policy and nobody is talking about it.” Ignoring the fact that it affects every family and every community, we tend to dismiss mental health issues as a “niche” problem.

Yet the most common mental health issues in this country are depression, which affects some 300,000 people in Ireland, and anxiety disorders.

The largest sector of society affected by these conditions are children and young adults aged 10 to 29 — hardly a niche group.

THE STRESS OF WORKING PARENTS

On top of that, warns Gaynor, many women are struggling to cope with the anxiety and feelings of guilt brought about by the expectation that they balance difficult and multiple roles in the home and at work.

Part of this problem is the over-emphasis we place on the importance of the workplace. Most people want a job and a family, Gaynor points out, but, he warns, that balancing act can be complex and difficult in a society where the importance of the workplace is hugely prioritised — perhaps, on reflection, disproportionately so.

These days, he reflects, many companies expect employees to “be responsive” on a 24/7 basis: “Employers expect employees to be literally on call to the organisation all the time, and that’s very hard on family life.

“There’s a constant pull in multiple directions which can be overwhelming for people.

“Most men and women want a family and a job, and these should not be pitted against each other.

New book looks at how we can build a 'better and happier Ireland'

“Yet it’s constantly a case of job versus family,” says Gaynor.

This “pull” between the home and the workplace is a particular stressor for out-at-work mothers, he says:

“In subtle and unsubtle ways, organisations provide little or no flexibility for people with families.” We should make that balancing act easier, he suggests by legislating for and incentivising job-sharing, part-time work opportunities, affordable childcare and improved maternity and paternity leave.

“These are achievable, practical policies that ensure work and life are not in constant competition. Nor are they anti-economic.

There’s strong evidence that they improve staff loyalty, staff retention and productivity.

CREATE DECENT JOBS

“We can increase job security and ban zero-hour and low-hour contracts.

“Job insecurity is a recipe for stress and illness.

“High job satisfaction rates lead to lower absenteeism and higher productivity.

“This is an economic benefit to everyone. Work can’t be a zero-sum game. It can be one of the most fulfilling aspects of our lives. But there is lots of evidence to suggest that the happier we are in our jobs, the harder we work.” Legislation must incentivise large employers to do the right thing, he believes. “Paradoxically, employers will benefit in the long term,” he says, adding that short-term contracts, zero-hour contracts, and jobs without career paths mean more stress.

“We shouldn’t be surprised then if people clock-watch, call in sick, are unproductive or unengaged. Happiness pays. The research says so,” says Gaynor who points to recommendations by the OECD last year which exhorted employers to see mental health as a key element of efficiency and productivity.

Further work is required to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health he says. More still is needed to make the existing mental health services significantly more relevant and accessible to those they aim to serve through early intervention and the provision of specialist cognitive behavioural services to deal with anxiety and depression.

LONELINESS

But the mental health services can’t do it all — what about that basic human need in all of us for people to love, for people who love us in return, and for an occupation that gives us a sense of meaning and satisfaction? “These are things that a mental health service cannot provide,” says Gaynor, adding that love, belonging and work, come from our friends, family and from the whole community.

“Loneliness kills,” he says bluntly. “Research repeatedly reinforces that isolation drives and maintains every mental health disorder.

“Yet isolation cannot be addressed by a mental health service. It is incumbent on all of us to build the bonds of friendship and support that break through these feelings,” he says adding that existing community structures like gyms, churches and GAA clubs should be used to help target mental health difficulties through exercise, meditation and volunteering. There’s also a wide range of volunteer organisations which encourage us to re-engage with the world around us, he says, pointing to the new social entrepreneur organisations which, he believes are able to reach out to people who have become isolated and separated from their community.

“Neighbours always used to look after neighbours. This is what Ireland used to be like. We’ve just forgotten how to do it.” Or is it, perhaps, that we haven’t really internalised the crying need to de-stigmatise mental health issues?

Why else would so many Irish people phone a complete stranger to confide their problems?

The number of calls to the Samaritans is increasing — the year from October 2014 to September 2015 showed a 30% increase in the number of contacts.

“We are seeing the numbers of people calling us constantly increasing,” says Rachel Wright – Policy and Communications Manager with the Samaritans.

“We know that loneliness is a huge factor — you’d have to wonder what is happening in a society where it’s easier to ring someone we don’t know rather than have a conversation with family and friends,” adding that The Samaritans would like to see what they describe as the Department of Health’s “very good strategy” on Suicide Prevention being rolled out with strong cross-party support.

Also on the Samaritan’s wishlist are a network of well-resourced community mental health teams — there are several such teams in place around the country, she says, but not all are as well-resourced as they could be.

But there’s also the issue of individual responsibility.

SEEK HELP

When I caught up with her, Dr Claire Hayes, Clinical Director of AWARE was on Day Three of the organisation’s DAWN Week, its annual national campaign highlighting depression and bipolar disorder.

The theme for the 2016 AWARE campaign, says Hayes, is ‘Stand Up for Surviving.’

“There’s a sense of hopelessness in the country about mental health,” she observes.

“There’s a feeling among some people that we’re in a hopeless situation, but it’s important to recognise that change is possible and that there is hope.” Hayes points to research showing that AWARE’s online *Life Skills programmes for depression work.

Hayes wants to see a change in the mindset of society; an acceptance that, actually, something is working.

And, she emphasises, there is an individual responsibility here too – for people to take the support that is out there.

‘Protecting Mental Health’ (Veritas Publications, €12.99) will be launched by Dr Tony Bates of Headstrong, in Buswell’s Hotel, Dublin tomorrow.

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