LOUISE O'NEILL: There’s still an idea in Irish culture that having a therapist is ‘very American’, and something that is best avoided here

I have heard people express bitterness towards those who have taken their own lives, I have heard others ask sufferers ‘why’ they’re depressed considering how privileged they have been in other aspects of their lives, writes Louise O’Neill

I was recently asked to support Pieta House and the Darkness into Light initiative on May 6. When faced with the frightening statistics that show on average 10 people die by suicide every week in this country — we have the second highest suicide rate for young men in the world and the fourth highest rate of self harm in teenage girls — I felt compelled to take part. I was not the only one.

Arriving out to Clonakilty GAA pavilion at 4am, I was immediately struck by the size of the crowds. In a town with approximately 4,000 inhabitants, more than 2,000 people had turned up to walk and to raise awareness around this devastating issue. Those numbers were reflected all over the country, with an estimated 150,000 people walking in support of Pieta House.

It was an incredible experience, the eeriness of the dead of night broken by a sea of yellow t-shirts. We walked as the light spilled across the dark sky, hinting at the new day. Hinting at hope to come.

The work that Pieta House is vitally important and while the situation has improved, there is still a fundamental lack of understanding surrounding mental health issues. I have heard people express bitterness towards those who have taken their own lives, I have heard others ask sufferers ‘why’ they’re depressed considering how privileged they have been in other aspects of their lives.

These reactions show that many still believe that mental illness is something that can be controlled by the unwell, and that failure to do so is their own ‘fault’. We need to treat those with mental health issues as if it is a physical disease.

Would you be angry with someone who had died of a heart attack? Would you ask someone why on earth they developed breast cancer when they have a successful career and a husband who adores them? When we put it in this context it becomes clear how nonsensical it is to accuse those who are unwell of being ‘selfish’ simply because they are struggling.

We also need to have open conversations around mental health to destigmatise the issue. I was reminded of this recently when I posted a photo on social media of a mirror with ‘You are beautiful’ written in swirling script across the glass. The caption accompanying the post said ‘The bathrooms in my therapist’s office are so on brand’.

Within minutes, three different people had messaged me. The first two thanked me for being unapologetic about the fact that I was in therapy, saying that it had helped them be more honest with their friends about their own experiences. The third said ‘Yeah, yeah. We get it. You go to therapy.”

Typically, it was the latter that niggled at me. If I had posted a photo of myself in the waiting room at my dentist’s, would they have said ‘yeah, we get it. You take care of your teeth?’ Of course not. The real message here was — we don’t like you talking about this. This is something that you should be ashamed of. Please be quiet. Don’t air your dirty laundry in public.

I first started seeing a therapist when I was 17. My parents forced me to go and I was humiliated by the entire affair. I was embarrassed that I wasn’t ‘normal’, that I couldn’t seem to cope as easily with life as my friends did. The therapist didn’t work outside of school hours so I had to leave class an hour early every Wednesday for my appointment.

I told people that the reason for this was that I had pernicious anaemia and I needed to get an iron injection on a weekly basis. (Still have no idea if this excuse holds up, medically speaking.) The thought of my classmates finding out that there was something ‘wrong’ with me on a psychological level was so devastating that I felt as if my entire world would fall apart if the truth was discovered. That’s what the stigma around mental health does — it places shame on the most vulnerable, shame they can barely shoulder.

In the last number of years, I have been candid about the fact I go to therapy. I talk about it a lot because I don’t think I have anything to be ashamed of. I have an eating disorder and, unfortunately, I can’t manage it by myself. I’ve tried and my attempts to do so led to hospitalisation and at risk of having a heart attack at the age of 21. So yes, anonymous Snapchat user, you get it, I go to therapy. I go to therapy because it saved my life.

There’s still an idea in Irish culture that having a therapist is ‘very American’, and like relentless positivity and incredible customer service, that’s something that is best avoided here. But if we accept that we need to exercise in order to maintain physical health, shouldn’t we also recognise the need to maintain mental wellness? The derision is misplaced here — instead of holding those who are honest about their health concerns in contempt, we should be examining a system that appears to believe that appropriate therapeutic services (often life-saving ones) are a privilege that should only be granted to those who can afford to pay for them.

Many charitable organisations do incredible work and yet so much of what they do is funded by the generosity of private citizens.

Shouldn’t there be an onus on the state to provide appropriate and easily accessible help for the most vulnerable in our society?

As Martin Luther King was reputed to have said: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhuman.”

So, let’s keep talking. Reject the attempts of others to silence you because of their discomfort around mental health. We are only as sick as our secrets and thus, I urge you to refuse to keep those secrets anymore.


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