Fianna Fail TD Robert Troy has spoken eloquently and openly in the Dáil about his anxiety, writes Fergus Finlay
FOR a number of years now, Robert Troy has been the Fianna Fáil spokesman on children. Although in opposition, he was one of the leading advocates for the Children’s Rights referendum. There was much objection to that referendum, and it was hard-fought and divisive.
But Troy never wavered in his support for it, although there must have been moments when it seemed more advantageous to be against it.
He wasn’t just constant. He was energetic, travelling throughout the country, and arguing the case from a basis of knowledge and research. I remember writing here, when the campaign was over, that Robert Troy was one of the reasons that the outcome was successful.
So he was one of the parliamentarians that I admired in the last Dáil for his willingness to put his money where his mouth was and to stand up for what he believed in. And even though I wouldn’t be a cheerleader for his party, I was genuinely glad that he did really well in the general election.
What I didn’t know — what nobody knew, I suppose, except those closest to him — is that Robert Troy, throughout that period, had his own inner struggle. When he spoke in a short Dáil debate the other night, on the subject of mental health, he cut through the waffle about statistics.
He said: “I suffer with anxiety. I know what it’s like to experience one’s heart racing so fast it feels like it will burst out of one’s chest. I know what it is like to awake in the morning and not want to get out of bed, for no other reason than that I do not feel I have the capacity to address the challenges of the day. I know what it is like to have a knot in the pit of one’s stomach. It is like being in a tug-o-war, with two people pulling at either side and not knowing how to adapt to the situation.”
Later, he wrote a moving piece in the Journal about his struggles with anxiety, and about the need to humanise the problem.
“I was scared, nervous, and anxious about the prospect of speaking out in front of my peers, knowing that they would all know my weaknesses and sufferings,” he wrote.
“People tend to think that public figures, in particular politicians, must be extremely resilient. They see them as a ‘go-to’ person, who can help people through challenges, and I felt I was good in this role.
“But even though people are entitled to expect the very best from us, and to demand it through our representation, there are still private battles that we must face.”
We all do it, don’t we — though perhaps not many of us have the courage to speak out in public. Because of the stigma attached to mental health in Ireland, it has always been hard for any public representative to admit to fighting a private battle to get out of bed in the morning. But it’s hard for anyone who is looking for a job, or seeking a promotion, to admit to such feelings. There are some things we believe we have to cope with alone — even though coping alone is the hardest thing to do.
It may be that stigma, that unwillingness to tell a simple truth, which applies to most of us in one degree or another, that has made mental health the Cinderella of public policy. For years, it has been hidden away in a corner, under- resourced, under-managed, with nobody ever really wanting to take responsibility.
In politics, mental health, if it has featured at all, has been the preserve of a junior minister. Kathleen Lynch was the most recent one, and she had to battle every year, first of all to get a budget, and then to protect it from the depredations of her own department, which has always had other priorities.
In public life, mental health has tended to be a no-go area. People such as Niall Breslin have done enormous public service, in speaking out about their own mental health, and have always attracted a moment’s attention when they do so. But then the policy-makers heave a sigh of relief when it disappears back into the darker recesses.
We know how much damage has been done. At one extreme, hundreds of people take their own lives each year in Ireland. At least a handful of those people are children. But mental health affects the life choices of tens of thousands of children throughout Ireland. Any child whose parents battle with mental health problems will often themselves be lonely, isolated, or afraid. A parent who deeply loves his or her children, and still has to deal with anxiety or depression, cannot be the effective parent they want to be. Mental health in parents can generate hopelessness in themselves and their children.
In that sense and others, mental health affects the whole of public policy — from education to employment, from housing to social protection. The costs associated with generations of failure to confront it in an organised way are massive, and the human cost is even greater.
And, yet, if I were to stop a thousand people in the street and ask them for name of the key agencies responsible for addressing mental health, I bet I’d get very few takers. If you ask people who is responsible for road safety, they know. Or who’s responsible for health and safety in the workplace, or for inspecting standards in residential facilities. These organisations have all built recognisable brands, but those responsible for addressing mental health continue to work in the shadows.
There is a strategy of sorts in place. It’s called ‘Vision for Change’, and I say “of sorts” because it’s something that has always been offered lip service, rather than been led or driven. There are agencies — several of them — but they’re not focused, they don’t work together, and they’re not nearly accountable enough.
There is a budget, but it’s paltry. And, of course, there’s no brand, no instantly recognisable point of reference with which people can resonate.
Put all that together, and what it says is that there is no political will. It has to be encouraging, though, that the Dáil devoted one of its limbo days to the subject of mental health, and that speaker after speaker demanded more priority for the subject.
We’ll know, when the government is formed and the portfolios given out, exactly how much mental health will be prioritised over the next few years. Like so many other areas of Irish life, this is a subject where progress is possible, if all our policy-makers approached it with the same honesty and openness as Niall Breslin and Robert Troy.
Imagine — we could begin to end the stigma about a subject that desperately needs to be out in the open. That wouldn’t in itself solve the problem, but it would be a new beginning.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved