Let’s hope that we can start now to focus on building ‘a proper constituency of support’, as Olivia O’Leary put it, for people with mental health difficulties, writes Clodagh Finn
When you hear someone like broadcaster Olivia O’Leary speak about how, in her 20s, there were days when she felt like a slug, you know that something big is happening in Irish society.
Her powerful radio column and subsequent interview about her experience of depression was an act of profound generosity that will help so many.
The outpouring of gratitude in texts and tweets gave some indication of that and, hopefully, her moving description of how she felt unable to raise a hand to get to the phone will prompt others to do just that, if they need to.
Her words and those of Fianna Fáil TD for Longford-Westmeath Robert Troy, who had the courage to stand up in the Dáil and talk about his anxiety, will give so many silenced people a new voice.
When high-achieving, talented, accomplished people say that they have moments of extreme vulnerability, that there are times when they feel crippled by anxiety, that they have feet of clay, it sends a truly powerful message to the world at large.
It can, if facilitated, open the way for an open, honest, even radical discussion about how we think — and talk — about depression, an illness that affects millions of people.
However, the worst thing we can do right now is raise Olivia O’Leary on to a plinth and, as one text suggested, hail her as an ‘icon’. Or indeed, turn her into a poster woman for depression.
Is it tempting to turn this supremely talented journalist into a champion and to talk about her ‘battle’ with depression in heroic terms, but that would do her, and all those who know the reality of depression, an awful disservice.
For one thing, we might start to define her by the illness that she came through during that awful time in her 20s, rather than the multi-faceted person that she is.
The same is true for TD Robert Troy whose eloquent speech made one unsettling truth crystal clear — an episode of anxiety and depression can pass, though the associated stigma often lives on.
In fact, looking at the way those two stories were reported throws a fascinating light on how the media actually perpetuates the stigma that, unfortunately, still hovers over depression.
Without exception, the reports spoke of an “admission”, “revelation” or “disclosure” and of the “battle” or “struggle” the public figures had with depression.
I once spoke to a hospice cancer patient who said he hated the term “fighting” or “battling cancer”. He said it made him feel as if he needed to get up every day, put on full battle dress and ride out with a sword in his hand to slay the cancer dragon. Even the thought of that exhausted him, he said.
That experience might resonate with people with depression.
I was particularly struck by Olivia O’Leary’s account of missing her train stop because she couldn’t motivate herself to stand up and get out. “I ended up in some strange places, but mostly I ended up alone in my room,” she said.
The idea that a person might have to do battle when they are in a place like that seems deeply unhelpful.
The negative effect those prevalent phrases can have was brilliantly explored by Susan Sontag in Illness as Metaphor in 1978. She made the point that the myths, metaphors, and words surrounding certain conditions added greatly to the distress of patients and often stopped them from seeking help.
She said the way we spoke about cancer, and earlier TB, made people feel in some way responsible for their illness, as if it was a punishment for their lifestyles or their chronic worrying or their repressed feelings.
Instead, she said, it was much healthier to cast off the trappings of metaphor, the “sentimental concocted preconceptions” and deal with the real condition in hand.
I think it’s safe to say that depression and anxiety come with an awful lot of woolly words and baggage too. Some have tried to be helpful and describe it as “the common cold of mental illness”. That expression at least shows how common it is, but it also suggests that you might somehow catch it, which, in turn, arouses dread and even more powerlessness. Another common belief is that depression makes you unfit for high office.
In an otherwise sensitive interview with Olivia O’Leary last Wednesday, Seán O’Rourke made one gob-smacking comment. He said his first thought, after hearing Robert Troy speak about his anxiety in the Dáil, was that it might stop him from being appointed a minister had Fianna Fáil been in government.
Would Seán O’Rourke say the same if Mr Troy had said he had diabetes? Not that they are the same but both conditions have common elements: They can be chronic, managed daily, and improved by some lifestyle changes.
No wonder the media talks in terms of depression “revelations” and “admissions” when there is an automatic assumption that it will damage your job prospects.
The comment in itself is a good thing though, because it brings those ideas out into the open. Now, thanks to Robert Troy, Olivia O’Leary, Bressie, and others, there are a growing number of people to challenge the deeply held, though often misguided, ideas that have taken hold about depression.
Let’s hope that we can start now to focus on building “a proper constituency of support”, as Olivia O’Leary put it, for people with mental health difficulties.
The government — in so far as it exists — has finally given a commitment to implement A Vision for Change, 10 years after the policy framework for mental health services was written.
The incoming leaders might also think twice when trying to raid the mental health piggybank. The government’s attempts to cream off €12m was the final spur for Robert Troy’s speech.
But perhaps best of all, the discussion of recent days allows all of us to be a little bit more real. And what a blessed relief that is.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved