29 December 2012

You are not alone

Street Art by Morgan and Solus, for First Fortnight 2013
Temple Lane, Dublin, 29th December, 2012
Two weeks ago in a small town in Western Connecticut, a young man gathered up his mother's collection of guns and extinguished the lives of twenty-seven people, twenty of whom were children under the age of eight. Within a matter of hours the conservative lobby groups had decided that the cause of this tragedy was not the ready availability of hand-held weapons of mass destruction, but the fact that this young man suffered from a mental health illness. The conservative media embraced and reinforced this message, and quite quickly the narrative on certain channels became that the world was full of dangerous people with mental health illnesses, and only by arming teachers would your children be safe.

In October of this year, a young woman died in a Galway hospital after being denied a termination. Although the foetus had no chance of survival, Savita Halappanavar was forced to continue to carry it and consequently developed septicemia, resulting in her tragic and painful death from multiple organ failure. Subsequent pressure to introduce legislation in the wake of her heartbreaking death has been met with strong opposition from within an already conservative Government, with ministers threatening to break ranks and reject any attempts to enact legislation that is perceived as softening the stance on abortion.

Thirty years ago in the wake of the X-Case, the Supreme Court of Ireland ruled that an abortion was lawful if a pregnant woman's life was at risk, including the risk of suicide. In two subsequent Referenda the people of Ireland rejected Government attempts to remove the risk of suicide as grounds for a termination. Although both the Supreme Court and the people of Ireland clearly expressed their will, successive Governments refused to legislate on this issue. While the risk of suicide was not an issue with Savita, it is now being used as rallying cry by conservative politicians and media commentators in an attempt to block legislation.

The truly repugnant narrative being crafted here is that pregnant women will fabricate mental health issues in an attempt to gain abortions-on-demand. The insidious broader message is that mental health issues are not as serious as physical ones. The fact that the citizenry and Supreme Court have clearly expressed their will on this issue on three separate occasions means nothing to the forces of social conservatism within our legislature, and their beliefs are clear - mental health is an irrelevancy and of little importance in comparison to the diktats of Catholic dogma.

Street Art by Solus, for First Fortnight 2012
Drury Street, Dublin, 18th January, 2012
Eight days ago, a Government Minister sadly took his own life. While the Irish media is traditionally reluctant to report such tragedies as suicides, preferring to describe these deaths as "unexpected" or "sudden", within twenty-four hours the suicide of Minister Shane McEntee was being openly referred to. While the tragic death of such a prominent figure could have provided an opportunity for a period of dignified public reflection on the scourge of suicide in Ireland, instead the Government quickly decided that the conversation should instead be on the evils of Social Media. Suggestions were made that unspecified anonymous online comments directed at the Minister were instrumental in this tragedy, and as with their US counterparts conservative commentators within the Irish media were happy to play along.

The Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications under Fine Gael chairperson Tom Hayes TD will now examine the issue of Social Media in Ireland, and apparently explore the introduction of legislation to restrict anonymous Internet usage. Such legislation was enacted this week in China in the wake of a series of high profile corruption scandals uncovered by citizen journalists and disseminated widely online, and now all users must provide their ISPs with proof of their real names and addresses in a move widely seen as a crack down on dissent. While no doubt this is a comparison the Government will be keen to avoid, they may still contend that legislation is needed to prevent online bullying. However Hayes himself said quite plainly that "the media is in a different era now. It's very challenging and we want to control it".

While the Government has spent these last few days engaged in a very public hand-wringing, it emerged today that over the last year it has in fact gutted its own ring-fenced fund for suicide prevention programmes and other mental health initiatives. Although €35 Million had been provided in last year's budget to allow for 414 new staff to be recruited to bring our antiquated Mental Health system up to an adequate level, a significant portion of this allocation was diverted to cover shortfalls in other areas, and as a result only 17 out of the 414 proposed new staff were actually hired. Seventeen.

On Friday the Government paid the holders of unsecured Bank Of Ireland bonds just over €37 Million.

With the Government so quick to divert attention away from the real issues surrounding mental health in Ireland, perhaps it was simply easier to attack an online bogeyman than to explain why it had decimated an already critically under-resourced infrastructure.

Street Art by ADW, for First Fortnight 2013
Mary's Abbey, Dublin, 29th December, 2012
In the space of two months, three very public tragedies have shone a spotlight on issues of mental health, but the way in which politicians, the conservative media and special interest groups have treated the issue has been appalling. Those with mental health issues have been attacked, trivialised or coldly manipulated all for cynical political purposes. In the US the forces of social conservatism have demonised mental illness to preserve their fanatical gun fetish while here in Ireland they dismiss it as an irrelevancy in the face of their religious beliefs or capitalise on it to silence dissent, and all the while the issue of mental health itself gets more and more stigmatised, and the ability to openly discuss it in a rational manner disappears under the weight of so much hysterical baggage.

In 2011 alone over 500 people took their own lives in Ireland. Between 2008 and 2011 the total number is over 2,000. For young men aged 15-24 we have the fourth highest rate of suicide in the EU. Every year the annual report by the National Office of Suicide Prevention makes for very somber reading, and yet sadly both Taoisigh and respected journalists have thought it acceptable in recent years to make light of the subject.

Mental Health in 21st Century Ireland is still a taboo subject, something that only happens to other people, something to be ashamed of. Our leaders ignore or exploit it. Our media sensationalise it. Our children hide it, and succumb to it. Yet, still, nobody talks about it.

This is the conversation we need to be having. We need to be discussing this openly, publicly, rationally and in a supportive manner.

We need to talk, and then we need to act.

Street Art by Maser, for First Fortnight 2012
Grantham Street, Dublin, 13th January, 2012
In the first two weeks of January, the First Fortnight Festival will be taking place in Dublin. Launched in 2009 the Festival aims to create an open public space where issues of mental health can be explored and discussed through the medium of creative arts. All the photographs used in this post are of street art created specifically for the 2012 and 2013 Festivals.

More photographs can be found here.

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