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Mental health: The issue that could make or break the next election

Mental health difficulties occur in every constituency, across every demographic. And it’s time proper attention was paid to the problem.

Dr Keith Gaynor Clinical psychologist

THE COUNTDOWN TO the 2016 General Election has started. All the battle lines are being drawn: tax, austerity, water charges. In previous elections, mental health has never been mentioned. Disappointingly, in Minister Varadkar’s “25 Health Priorities”, mental health barely gets a look in. So on the surface it looks like mental health might get glossed over again. However, there is growing evidence that mental health could be decisive in the 2016 election.

This is why.

Mental health difficulties affect more than ½ million people in Ireland. Less than 2 million people voted in the 2011 election. Many seats are only won by a couple of hundred votes. Any issue that affects ½ million people can have a significant outcome on an election result.

Mental health difficulties occur in every constituency. Any party who pushes forward a national programme of improvements in mental health services has an issue that can reach nationwide.

Mental health difficulties occur across every demographic. This means that it is not “owned” as an issue by any party. Mental health services are neither an issue of the right nor of the left. As an election issue, it has the potential to create a swing in any constituency, towards any candidate or away from any candidate.

Stress, anxiety and depression exert a huge economic cost across the economy through sick leave, absenteeism and disability. This affects all businesses but is especially important among farmers and the small and medium enterprises that make up the majority of employers in rural constituencies.

Suicide is the largest killer of young men in the country and every town, city and village in the country has been hurt by suicide. Suicide and mental health are deeply personal. And that is how people vote. They vote local and they vote personal.

There has been a fundamental shift in Irish people’s understanding and willingness to discuss mental health. The stigma which created a wall of silence around mental health issues is being broken down on all sides. The last number of years has seen charity events such as “Cycle for Suicide” and “From Darkness into Light” supported by tens of thousands of people.

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 and understandable. The media have kept a consistent focus on mental health difficulties through news stories and personal accounts. The most fundamental shift in Irish people’s understanding is that they do not think that mental health problems happen to someone else – they know it can happen to anyone, in any family.

To the party that grabs it, there is an enormous opportunity. Mental health services have been so neglected that there is a large range of modern, cost-effective and therapeutically-impactful interventions that are just waiting to be rolled out. These are cheaper and more therapeutic than “classical” services. Good mental health services aren’t based on large capital projects but on a flexible, well-trained workforce. Large hospitals have a negative impact on mental health; a nurse in a Renault Clio has a very positive one.

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Many of these services have already been set up and trialled in certain areas of Ireland but because of the timing of the economic crash, they never had the chance to be rolled out. We have home treatment in Cavan/Monaghan, youth outreach in Galway, early psychosis treatment in south Dublin and borderline personality interventions in Cork.

The greatest problem in mental health is not that effective treatments haven’t been developed but that people do not have access to modern, timely mental health services. There are either long-waiting lists or they only exist in other catchment areas. Parity of access is a core right that TDs are in an important position to campaign and lobby for and it is exactly the sort of issue that wins elections on a local level.

One of the mistakes political parties have made is that they believe that people experience the crash as just something economic but people experience it as something personal. The GDP-to-debt ratio matters in the Department of Finance but to ordinary people that translates as worry, sleepless nights and stress. The Irish People know what the recovery from the crash is. It is about freedom from anxiety and depression. It is about feeling happier.

The party that proves that it is interested in people’s welfare has the potential to reach past the political tit-for-tat to what people actually care about: their own and their family’s wellbeing. So, 2016 can be a transformative election for mental health because mental health is local and personal. If people vote like that, it will put mental health on the electoral agenda forever.

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

‘The young man I saw in my outpatient department recently had changed his life around’

‘Like many young men, I refused to believe there was anything wrong. But I couldn’t stop crying.’

About the author:

Dr Keith Gaynor  / Clinical psychologist

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