Irish Examiner view: Mental health services a scandal on a par with any past horrors

Under-resourced services struggle to offer the refuge needed at times of crisis
Irish Examiner view: Mental health services a scandal on a par with any past horrors

Our mental health services are struggling to cope.

Like individuals, societies judge themselves through many prisms. Some societies imagine themselves civilised, and even replete, if they sustain a few opera companies or maybe an army showjumping team.

An embassy in Bern, possibly, or a city-centre, white-water playground might be regarded as progress. 

Others have more fundamental ambitions and may be content, even if only for a short time, if most citizens have access to clean water, some sort of a roof over their heads, and something to eat most days.

As societies become more secure, they must be judged differently. 

Just as successful individuals are, they must be judged by their behaviour rather than by their acquisitions. 

They must be judged on how they give real meaning to human, life-sustaining values.

The US, yet again, this morning, must wonder what its latest mass shooting says about its values. Ten people were randomly murdered at a Colorado supermarket on Monday. 

Nevertheless, this mass murder, just the latest in a litany, will not even momentarily shake some Americans’ certainty around their right to bear arms. 

That the suspected killer is “receiving medical care” ticks a by-now-almost-standard box in the choreography of these tragedies. 

All-too-easy access to firearms and unsettled mental health are an incendiary mix. 

But the US is not unique in this regard.

We dare not be too sanctimonious, as our recent history records that, in Cork alone, there have been three multiple murders where mental instability may have been a catalyst for a death toll close enough to Monday’s Colorado carnage. 

Firearms may not have always been used, but that is immaterial. 

Under-resourced

Yet, despite huge evidence of urgent need, our under-resourced mental-health services struggle to offer the refuge needed at moments of crisis.

Sadly, they can, in some cases, exacerbate the problem. These issues came together in a truly shaming, deeply disturbing vignette last week.

Even if words like shame, responsibility, decency, and duty have lost some of their heft, that gardaí were involved in a three-hour standoff at the gates of the Central Mental Hospital (CMH) when staff refused to admit a severely mentally ill man following a court order that he be treated there, is beyond cruel.

The man, a paranoid schizophrenic, had been in prison on remand for 14 months and spent much of that on 23-hour lock-up in Wheatfield Prison. 

He was jailed because he was ill and this society chose not to offer him basic support. 

Gardaí were only able to deliver the man when gates were opened to allow staff to change shifts.

Even if a shortage of beds at the CMH has been a serious issue for many years, and even if there can be a list of up to 30 prisoners waiting for a bed at any one time, this is beyond tolerable — in a country with a long tradition of abusing or ignoring the vulnerable.

Our current difficulties have provoked well-meaning discussions around a post-pandemic reset.

We don’t need a reset, we just need to remember our obligations to our struggling fellow citizens and act accordingly. 

This long-indulged scandal is now on a par with any of the horrors of our past. That it exists at all is a scandal. That it continues in an open-ended way is amoral and criminal.

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