Irish Examiner View: The power of a quiet revolution

Mental illness and empathy survey shows how attitudes have changed in a revolutionary way
Irish Examiner View: The power of a quiet revolution

Survey found nearly half of adults (41%) have been treated for a mental health difficulty.

This might not be the moment, just as Taliban leader Amir Khan Muttaqi is said to be in talks with the remnants of Kabul’s leadership, to suggest to the unfortunate, frightened, isolated citizens of Afghanistan that revolution can come quietly. 

It may not be the moment, either, to suggest that quiet revolutions have a habit of consolidating the change they bring in the most profound, seemingly permanent ways.

If the people of Afghanistan are caught in the opening act of a revolution — if a power shift preceded by a 20-year war can be described as such — the Archbishop of Dublin, Dermot Farrell, has acknowledged that the relationship between the Catholic Church and this society has changed in a way that can only be described as revolutionary. He has suggested that evidence of Christian belief in Ireland today “has, for all intents and purposes, vanished”. 

It is hard to argue with his analysis, even if the scale of that change was unimaginable when the Taliban became a force to be reckoned with just 20 years ago. There have been many other changes in those decades, some legislative, some cultural. One cultural advance that can be universally welcomed is the change in attitudes to mental health and to those who suffer mental health issues. That shift may not be, yet, reflected in the funding of various support programmes, but the shift has been as profound as it is welcome — and that vital funding must come.

The St Patrick’s Mental Health Services’ annual Attitudes to Mental Health and Stigma Survey was published yesterday. It outlined many challenges, but also showed how attitudes have changed in a revolutionary way. It found that nearly half of adults (41%) have been treated for a mental health difficulty. This represents a pandemic-driven increase of 6% from last year and 16% since 2019. Though those increases cannot be ignored, they signal, in the context of the taboo attitudes of 20 years or more ago, huge change.

It is not so long since a mental illness was a defining episode. Many promising careers ended when a person had even a brief period of uncertainty or instability. People who acknowledged that they suffered from depression were, just occasionally, congratulated for having the courage to make public what was all too often judged a weakness rather than a curable illness. It would have been unimaginable that 40% of people, as those surveyed for the St Patrick’s report have done, would admit to a mental health vulnerability in those circumstances. Just as Charlotte Brontë’s Edward Rochester, in the 1847 novel Jane Eyre, locked his insane wife Bertha Mason away, this society did something similar and tried to hide mental illness in our darkest corners.

That the cruelty and tragedy — and often pointlessness — of that response are now recognised is progress that should be embraced and consolidated. That seems especially so in a society where mental illness can all too often speak through domestic violence, alcohol abuse, or murderous land disputes. At this dark moment in our world, the power and potential of that still-novel understanding should be embraced and the rejuvenating potential of that empathy maximised in a quiet, but revolutionary, way.

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