Op-Ed: A cure for pain

The issue of mental health has been stigmatised for too long in Irish society, writes Caroline McGuigan

You probably won’t have heard of me before, but since the beginning of January and for the next few weeks you may well find yourself face-to-face with me. I am appearing on billboards and bus shelters across the country.

This is because I am appearing in a new campaign from Amnesty International Ireland, which puts the spotlight on mental health prejudice and discrimination, and asks everyone to take steps to end it.

The words by my name are huge and scary – but we have to see them and understand them if we are truly to challenge the way our society views mental health.

I am doing this because it is time to bring mental health out of the dark ages to where it belongs, into our communities and into our lives. It is time for everyone to understand and realise vulnerability, fear and struggle are all a part of life. They are not things to be labelled, nor ashamed of.

However mental health problems remain hidden, as they are seen as shameful and weak. But struggle is a part of life. It’s what makes us who we are, yet our culture encourages us to hide the parts of ourselves that aren’t all perfect and nice. This has to stop. We need to give ourselves a bit of slack.

I was a psychiatric service user, I have attempted suicide, but I have built my life up again. People have believed in me, have seen my potential, and have gone the extra mile for me. I am a Chief Executive Officer, a psychotherapist, a wife, a mam, a sister, a friend, and a daughter. I love 60s music, I am extremely spiritual and benefit from meditation. Above all, I am a person with a full, lived life experience.

When I was first experiencing problems, I told those close to me that I had to go to hospital for a while, but I didn’t go into the details. I just said things were not great and I needed help. But the majority of people I didn’t tell. I was running my own business and the last thing I wanted was clients thinking I was ‘mad’. I told my business partner I was going into hospital, but did not say why. I kept it all very general and didn’t give content. It was very much a hush and taboo subject.

And do you know what was hard when people did start finding out? People making assumptions, telling themselves stories as to why I was mentally unwell and yet not knowing or having the full facts.

Comments like, ‘Jesus what could be wrong with her she had everything going for her?’ ‘A good kick up the arse is what she needs’, ‘Are you going to leave your child with her after she had those ‘things’?’ and ‘Does she not realise there are so many people out there really suffering?’

All of these remarks were like a knife in my heart.

It’s time to throw out the idea that mental health means you’re mad. Take the time to read up on the labels our systems have given people. Take the time to remember that we are all made up of many parts and we can struggle and be strong at the same time. See the fullness of people and challenge the media in how they portray illness in relation to mental health.

Discrimination is destroying people, destroying families, destroying communities. Enough is enough. It has to stop.

I believe in this campaign. I believe in the power of people to create change. I really do.

You see we as a nation are full of heart and once we ‘get it’, we have tremendous compassion and strength. I have no doubt that we can and will turn our attitudes in relation to mental health upside down and inside out, and we will be the change.

Amnesty International Ireland’s campaign is asking everyone to play a part in challenging mental health prejudice and discrimination. I am playing mine – why don’t you play yours? If we all work together we can be part of a better society, one that does not allow mental health prejudice and discrimination to exist.”

Caroline McGuigan is the CEO of Suicide or Survive, an organisation working towards suicide prevention, www.suicideorsurvive.ie.

Find out more about our campaign, which is asking everyone to take action to end mental health prejudice and discrimination, and the Irish Government to fully respect people’s human rights and address inequality, at www.amnesty.ie/mentalhealthdiscrimination.