We need to challenge assumption mental health is some dark secret

I SPENT a good deal of last weekend at the Special Olympic Games in Limerick. And a glorious weekend it was. A wonderful, intimate, family-focused opening ceremony on Thursday night was followed by three days of intense competition in the variety of sports in which Special Olympic athletes compete. A lot of the Games was centred on the University of Limerick campus, and the place couldn’t have been more welcoming.

We need to challenge assumption mental health is some dark secret

Most of my time, I have to admit, was spent following a series of nail-biting basketball matches. The standard was incredibly high and every match was a fiercely contested encounter. I have to declare an interest because my daughter Mandy was a member of the Eastern Regional team.

Mandy is getting to the stage where she’s like one of those experienced old pros. You know what I mean — she doesn’t run or challenge so much anymore, although she can still bag a mean basket when the ball comes to her handy. But she has a can-do attitude, an ability to shrug when things don’t go well, and she’s great for morale. Anyway, at the end of it all, Eastern took gold, just pipping a plucky Ulster team in the final. And the rest of us could relax. It will take a week for my fingernails to recover.

Everywhere I went over the weekend I met athletes, volunteers and families that I’d known since my own time as an active member. The thing that struck me most, as it always does, was the spirit. Like many organisations in our sector, Special Olympics is going through a hard time right now, Some of the staff working on the Games, for instance, will soon be made redundant. But that didn’t stop them throwing everything they have into making sure the Games were a phenomenal success.

If I was looking for one word to associate with the spirit and ethos of Special Olympics, the word would be resilience. You can see it in the athletes as they fight to reach the outer limits of their potential. You can see it in the families as they cheer their sons and daughters to the echo. If you’ve been one of those families, you know that every cheer represents a lifetime of challenge. Many of the athletes who take part are people who have been written off in their time, people of whom it has been assumed they’d never amount to anything.

Except by their families. There’s a huge pride in watching your son or daughter overcoming odds to win a ribbon or a medal, even to take part. And you realise that he or she has a quality that perhaps no one ever suspected.

That quality is resilience, the ability to cope with adversity, the ability to bounce back from hard knocks. It’s not something that can be taught or learned. But it can be easily destroyed.

It’s a simple, indefinable thing, and it often comes from other people. People who believe in us help us to believe in ourselves. People who support us help us to support ourselves. People who like us help us to like ourselves.

And when that isn’t there, it becomes harder to cope with some of the most common problems. Problems that are more usual than not. But still, problems we prefer not to talk about.

Later this week, the organisation I work for, Barnardos, is holding a conference on the subject of mental health. We’ve called it “Patients. Parents. People”, and we’ve done that for a number of reasons.

First, even though we’re slow to talk about it, mental health is a pressing challenge for thousands of us. There isn’t a family in Ireland that hasn’t experienced problems in dealing with mental health, and it can wreak havoc on family life as well as on the lives of individuals.

Second, there is all too often an easy assumption that if any of us is struggling with our own mental health and wellbeing, we can only be seen as a patient. But actually, we’re still people. We’re still mums and dads, brothers and sisters. We still have to cope with all the demands that brings. Too often, the treatment for whatever ails us can result in further isolation from the sources of love and support that can really help us.

And too often, the fact that we are now a “patient” can mean that those who love us, and depend on us, suddenly don’t know what’s going on.

One of my colleagues in Barnardos, Robert Dunne, tells a story of one family he works with:

“We are working with a family with three boys, 6, 9 and 11. Mark the eldest is acutely aware of his mother’s mental health and is struggling to understand what is going on for her. She suffers from anxiety and has spent some time in hospital. He is embarrassed about how she presents sometimes. Mark adores his mother and is fiercely protective of her, as she is of him, and he will fight anyone on the road that says anything about her. He takes on being the man of the house when his mum is not well because his parents are separated. It’s hard for him to talk about his mum without feeling disloyal to her. He asked me if I had met his mum and when I said I had, he said, ‘well you know then, ‘she is weird in a funny way’.”

Of course it’s impossible for an 11-year old boy to fully grasp the pressures his mum is coping with — especially if there is no one to explain it to him. That little boy would be typical of many we work with, alone, afraid, coping with stuff no 11-year old should have to cope with.

IT WOULD be so much easier for Mark, and his mum, if all these issues were out in the open. If it were possible to talk about it in a way that would explain that a child doesn’t have to take responsibility for a parent’s illness, that it’s ok to ask questions. And it would be so much easier if we all challenged the assumption that mental health is some dark secret.

If I’m struggling to cope with the pressures of everyday life, because of a crippling sense of anxiety for instance, does that automatically make me a bad parent? No it does not — and yet thousands of people are afraid to seek help and support because of the implicit fear that admitting to a challenge places some kind of a cloud over our parenting capacity. Nobody will ever put on their cv that they’ve had help to overcome a period of depression, because they fear it will make them unemployable.

And yet it’s a feature of life, ordinary life. Like many organisations that work with families, we recognise that stress and pressure is a part of life, and it can have consequences for many of us. One way of making things better is to get it out in the open. Nobody is just a patient. We’re all people, and the thing we have in common is that we all cope better together. How hard is that to admit?

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