The whole of society will benefit if mental health is placed front and centre

Valuing mental health and well-being is vital for all aspects of personal and societal well being, says clinical psychologist Paul Gilligan 

BRIAN Lenihan was a hero and a patriot. In a time of great need he put his country before his personal health and family.

Perhaps he would have died from his cancer whether he was the finance minister or not but it is likely that his position, and the stress it carried, exacerbated this cancer and his premature death.

I, like hundreds of others, was at the launch of the book about him two weeks ago in the National Library. Like many others in attendance I knew him in his professional capacity as the honest, committed, intelligent professional that he was. He was, among other things a superb minister for children who introduced progressive legislation, Garda vetting, and laid the groundwork for the children’s rights constitutional amendment passed last year. Yet most will remember him for the now infamous banking guarantee and for what is retrospectively discussed as the great big mistake of the last decade.

Looking around at the event and seeing the tired, stressed, and even sad faces of numerous sitting politicians it struck me that it is time we considered the physical and mental health of those who lead our country.

Research has demonstrated that the balance between work load and control over our working lives impacts significantly on our physical and mental health. It cannot be disputed that politicians, particularly ministers, have high work demands and little control over these demands. Combine these factors with the challenges our country has faced in recent times — the negativity, and constant barrage of criticism and scrutiny directed towards politicians and the lack of sleep, leisure and holidays they actually get — and you realise we have a serious problem.

We know that the rates of those experiencing mental health difficulties in Ireland have been high over the last number of years and that suicide, self harm, and substance abuse rates are equally as high. We also know that stigma regarding mental health difficulties is still endemic in Irish society.

Considering all of these facts there can be little doubt that our politicians, our country’s leaders, must be experiencing a vast amount of physical and mental health issues which they are perhaps not acknowledging or addressing. It is likely that many decisions are being made under serious stress, hopelessness and distress.

At a human level subjecting any person to this type of life is unacceptable. We cannot hope to get the best from the people who lead our country under these circumstances. Having physical or mental health issues does not and should not preclude a person from doing their job, once such issues are acknowledged and managed. The difficulties arise when the problems go unrecognised.Equally we cannot expect our leaders to prioritise health — particularly mental health — and seek to create a mentally healthy society if they are not given the opportunity to prioritise their own mental health. How can a person understand the need to provide care and decide on the best type of care to provide if they have not acknowledged and faced up to this need in themselves?

One of the biggest casualties on Irish society over the last seven years has been the loss of some of our humanity. We are quite rightly very angry and want to hold people to account for what happened. Our political leaders quite rightly bear the brunt of this anger. Their response to this has not been healthy. They work harder and are afraid like many others to declare if they have a problem, particularly a mental health problem, and are defensive. These characteristics are not conducive to creating a healthy society.

Many of the men and women who serve us as politicians care and do all they can for this country. They make mistakes, some may be greedy and some lack competence but most of them really care and are trying their best to do a good job. Indeed it is us who pick them to do this job. Brian Lenihan will leave us many legacies but perhaps one of the most important is the need to value, protect and respect our public representatives more.

We need to start supporting and trusting the people we select to run our country. Imagine what would happen if we started to reinforce progress, innovation and achievement rather than searching for and focusing on failures. We need to start having reasonable expectations of what they can and can’t do, while all the time holding them accountable. We need to encourage, support and even demand that they value their own physical and particularly their own mental health more.

Creating a healthy society, particularly a mentally healthy one, is essential to our future wellbeing. This has to happen at all levels, in families, schools and in communities. Essential to this process are our political leaders who we need to support to be courageous enough to lead by example.

Paul Gilligan is a clinical psychologist and CEO of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services


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