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Opinion: Have we reached the beginning of the end for mental health stigma?

After years of silence about our emotions, we as a society can lack a language to talk about our inner experiences. But that is finally changing.

Dr Keith Gaynor

THOUGHOUT HISTORY, mental health was something to be hidden away. It was “un-understandable”. Asylums dotted the Irish landscape and the names of those institutions became short-hand for everything we didn’t want to talk about. We didn’t talk about suicide. We didn’t talk about depression. We didn’t talk about anxiety. In the 1950s, we committed the largest number of people per capita in Europe. Mental health difficulties were brushed under layers of silence. Stigma forced individuals to hide, absolved communities of the responsibility to support them and allowed every government since the creation of the State to ignore and neglect mental health services.

Underlying this stigma were basic untruths which however false were widely accepted: “mental health difficulties happen to other people”; “it’s the person’s fault”; “someone can never get over mental health problems”. Mental health became a category of person rather than a health problem that someone can experience and get over.

A change in the tide

That has been slowly changing but it felt like 2014 was the year it began to alter for good. Large charity events like “Cycle Against Suicide” and “From Darkness into Light” gained national coverage. Thousands of people were involved in 2014 in these and similar suicide awareness charity events. This is an extraordinary. Remember suicide was only decriminalised in 1993. That’s how entrenched stigma about suicide was. Now the largest suicide awareness campaigns are Government-backed campaigns like #littlethings. These are highlighting the importance of good mental health practices to the widest number of people and are driving campaigns to end stigma.

The First Fortnight festival (www.firstfortnight.ie) is another nail in the stigma coffin. It is a wide ranging arts festival that has been running since 2011. Through its dozens of shows, acts and exhibitions, it discusses, explores and examines mental health through every medium that art can bring. Its creativity brings a light to areas often dominated by clinical-speak. Previous years have seen the festival be funny, irreverent and challenging. It holds a mirror up to experiences of mental health and the society that creates those problems.

After years of silence about our emotions, we as a society can lack a language to talk about our inner experiences. Think about how few words we have to describe how we feel: “I feel down”; “I feel not myself”; “I feel crappy”. That’s what stigma does. It clothes us in silence. It denies us a language. What the first fortnight festival offers are words, paintings, music, jokes that actually describe how we feel? The first Fortnight Festival gives us back a language to describe ourselves.

Sports stars and celebrities have allowed people to see the normal face of mental health. Bresie, Alan Quinlan, Alan O’Meara and others have played a vital role in providing a picture for what it is to have a mental health difficulty. Not something “other” but recognisable, understandable, human. Celebrities allow people to put a face to mental health difficulties.

Equally the wide variety of different personal stories being told highlight that mental health is not straightforward. It is not one size fits all. There are as many experiences of mental health difficulties as there are people who experience them. A person cannot be reduced to their diagnosis or their history. TheJournal.ie has played an important role in this. It has put its focus on a wide number of individual points of view and allowed people to tell their own stories. It has done this consistently, not just in January but throughout the year. Consistent promotion of different individual experiences allows us to recognise and put words on our own experiences.

We need a society-wide shift in the understanding of mental health and in 2014 it seemed like that change has finally started to take root. Basic concepts of good health that we would accept for any physical health disorder like: “it can happen to anyone”; “I am able to get over this” and “this difficulty is not my fault” started being accepted for mental health.

The battle to end mental health stigma is only starting to turn and future battles still lie ahead of us. Irish citizens still have chronic difficulties accessing timely and evidence-based treatment. Equally there are a wide number of mental health difficulties where better, more effective treatment still need to be developed. But mental health is being talked about and long may it stay that way.

Dr Keith Gaynor is a Senior Clinical Psychologist with St John of God Outpatient Psychological Services, Stillorgan (2771440). For information see www.sjoghosp.ie

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Dr Keith Gaynor

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