The pandemic has thrown up unthinkable challenges but, as many have observed, it has also opened the way to reimagining our lives. That point was made again forcibly yesterday by Paul Gilligan, chief executive of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, when he said Covid-19 has given us a real opportunity to reframe mental health stigma.
Sadly, that stigma is widespread and enduring. Three in five people believe being treated for a mental health difficulty is seen as a sign of personal weakness, according to a survey taken to coincide with the launch of St Patrick’s No Stigma campaign.
It couldn’t come at a better time as the pandemic has presented us with a “new mental health curve that will need flattening”, to quote research by the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland.
Psychiatrists have reported a big increase in the numbers of people seeking first-time help for a range of illnesses from anxiety and depression to self-harming and suicidal thoughts.
Lockdown has also deeply affected those under the age of 18. More than half of parents are worried about the long-term impact of the pandemic on their children’s mental health.
That is a powerful illustration of what campaigners have been saying for years — every single one of us is susceptible to mental health difficulties.
And, as those affected know only too well, the pain and isolation of mental illness is hard enough without having to worry about stigma too.
The No Stigma campaign aims to tackle, or at least chip away at, an enduring perception among the three in four people who think those who have spent time in a psychiatric hospital are viewed differently.
Despite growing awareness, we are still a long way from ending mental health stigma and the discrimination that can follow.
Many high-profile mental health campaigners, such as Bressie, have done so much to encourage others to speak out and seek help. Let’s hope the No Stigma campaign will prompt more to do the same.
Openness is key but it is of little use if we don’t put a well-funded range of supports in place for those who need it.
Earlier this month, John Farrelly, chief executive of the Mental Health Commission, told the Dáil’s Covid-19 committee that, when it came to managing the pandemic, Ireland’s mental health services was not fit for purpose.
He said there was a need to invest properly in community services and to stop “making excuses”.
Rethinking our attitude to mental health can only go so far unless the Government adequately funds the sector. And soon. Because as Martin Rogan, chief executive of Mental Health Ireland, told the same committee, there is now a "tsunami of need" due to the extraordinary toll the coronavirus has taken on the nation’s mental health.
That need will be further underlined when children go back to school and existing services come under further pressure. It’s time to plan ahead now.
Funding is vital, but we don’t have to wait for the Government to take action. We can all get behind the No Stigma campaign and start a series of real conversations about how we might go about changing attitudes.