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Stigma: 'When a doctor can say to you when filling out a sick cert: "Will I just put depression, or…?"'

We have a long way to go in this country when it comes to our approach to mental health matters, writes Jen Ronan.

Jen Ronan See Change Ambassador/ TV3 Elaine Panellist

IT REALLY SAYS something about the issue of stigma surrounding mental health when I was overdue with this piece for mental health-related reasons of my own.

I was terrified I’d let it go so long, and that the folks at See Change (who in real life actually have the patience of saints) would never want to work with me again because I was so unreliable and lazy.

The truth was that getting to write this article for them, and by extension TheJournal.ie, was something I jumped at at the chance to do, and nothing (apart from dodgy brain chemistry and a massive fear of failure) was going to stop me.

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But I digress. It’s still an example of how stigma can be a crippling nemesis in the battle for our mental health, even within ourselves.

While I can be seen and heard on a regular basis on most social media platforms and regularly on TV3’s The Elaine Show talking about (when relevant) my own experiences with self-harm, depression, and generalised anxiety disorder, I still find it incredibly hard to reach out and contact someone when I’m right in the eye of a mental health storm.

It’s always far easier to chat informatively about such horrors when they’re in your rear-view mirror, because at that stage, it’s over.

I’ve told myself that I came through it, so I’m fine now. That’s more palatable to my sense of self-worth as opposed to me reaching out to a friend, crying incoherently, breathing erratically, unwashed and terrified, afraid of being alone with my own brain a second longer for fear that I’ll never really quite make it back into daylight.

Everyone loves a success story

Everybody loves a success story, you say to yourself. Share it. Tell them all about the waking nightmares and the fact that you didn’t shower or eat an actual hot meal for over a week because you know deep down inside that you’re not worth the effort. Tell them about how you scream hate-mantras into the mirror in the wee small hours of the morning.

Show them everything. Leave no manky stone unturned, help others while you do it. But make sure you do it in the past tense, from a well-constructed blog post, or from a podium to an audience, scrubbed up well for once.

It’s easier for you, and everyone else, that way. It’s safer. The horse is back in the stable again, and all is well. Except that it’s not. And not just with the problem of personal stigma.

Mental health matters

We have a long way to go in this country when it comes to our approach to mental health matters. It’s certainly not as bad as it used to be, but that’s not good enough when there’s a body count involved in how we measure good and bad results.

When a doctor can say to you when filling out a sick cert: “So, what do you want me to write down, will I just put depression, or…?” (this has happened to me), there’s still stigma attached to mental health issues.

Now I don’t know if it points to the doctor’s own attitude to it, or if he was trying to word it the best way possible in case of an unsupportive employer, but it’s certainly worth noting. (I’m very supported and minded where I work by the way, I know others are not so lucky. That’s for anther day.)

Community love

Where you really see the stigma around issues in mental health being absolutely destroyed is within all of our local communities, on a non-government organisational level.

People are mad as hell, they’re losing loved ones needlessly every year to suicide and living with long-term effects of debilitating mental illness, and they’re not going to take it anymore.

They volunteer, they donate, they share, they reach out, they set up groups and get training to help those in immediate distress, they walk the bridges at night offering conversation and human connection, they pull people back from the brink of despair, both spiritually and physically, on a regular basis, and they ask for nothing for themselves.

The proof of a disappearing stigma on a community level is in the rising numbers. Next month will see campaigns like Green Ribbon and Darkness Into Light happening, and they both grow hugely every year in terms of how many get involved, and more importantly, stay involved.

If we all could take more example from the wonderful communities and people they represent, we’d be a mental health utopia.

Until then, let’s keep supporting the likes of Aware, See Change, Spun Out, The Samaritans, Pieta House, Marine Rescue Services, other suicide prevention groups, and other organisations far too many to mention here. I’ll also do my bit to stamp out the self-imposed stigma surrounding my own mental health issues, and try to practice what I preach. Deal?

Limerick blogger, Jen Ronan, is no stranger to sharing her stories in public. As a regular panellist on TV3′s Midday and occasionally on radio and in magazines, she’s always maintained that mental illness should be discussed out in the open to help those dealing with issues. In May each year, See Change and its partner organisations run the Green Ribbon campaign to get Ireland talking about mental health. This year, 500,000 green ribbons will be distributed nationwide and free of charge in conjunction with hundreds of local and national events. Visit www.greenribbon.ie for more information.

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About the author:

Jen Ronan  / See Change Ambassador/ TV3 Elaine Panellist

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