Mental illness - Honouring a brave campaigner

WHETHER you agreed with him or not, it is undeniable that John McCarthy, founder of the mental health lobby group Mad Pride, has put the state to shame by heightening public awareness of the issue of mental illness which, more often than not, has been swept under the carpet, and been the subject of a discredited form of enforced treatment in this country.

As with his friend, the late Mary Raftery, whose fearless brand of investigative journalism was celebrated in these columns yesterday, his passing also warrants public acknowledgement, especially for having turned the spotlight on the plight of people whose rights have been trampled under foot by successive administrations.

As a sufferer of mental illness, he knew precisely what he was talking about. Tragically, after overcoming that personal hurdle and having then survived a battle with cancer, he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease two years ago but approached that challenge characteristic good humour until his death earlier this week. He will be buried in Cork today.

As an outspoken and articulate advocate of the rights of those touched by mental illness, he saw the importance of celebrating what he termed “the normality of madness”. Taking the first significant step towards achieving that seemingly strange objective, he organised the first annual Mad Pride festival three years ago, an event which has now been held in Cork, Tullamore and Portlaoise.

Those who may have scoffed at the apparent naiveté of such a crusade will doubtless feel humbled in the face of the outpouring of tributes to his personal courage and honesty in addressing such a highly sensitive topic in an open and straightforward manner that could give no offence. In so doing, he has shed new light on how the question of mental health should be addressed. He regarded the institutional response of forcing a ‘cure’ on sufferers of mental illness as a most damaging and abusive ethos that ought to be challenged and resisted. Regrettably, in that context, his appointment by Government to a group charged with implementing the National Disability Strategy came far too late to enable him apply his insights to the problems confronting those who live with mental illness.

There is no denying his effectiveness in bringing about a sea change in how mental illness is now viewed. This is in marked contrast with the sense of shame surrounding discussions of this kind in the past. To further advance this newfound feeling of openness, the incarceration of patients with mental illness behind the high walls and locked doors of state institutions should also be brought to an end.

By opening up debate on mental illness as something just as normal as any other ailment and which, therefore, should be discussed in that light, he has performed an extremely important public service.

At a time when suicide is on the increase in Ireland, there has never been a greater need for his brand of charismatic support, especially for those mired in financial difficulty including many at grave risk of being weighed down by depression.


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