Sunday, January 3, 2010

How's the head? Seriously.

'How are you today?', 'Fine thanks, and yourself?', 'Grand now, not a bother'

These pleasantries, that we exchange everyday, are generally used as conversation starters. They are part of our social script. When we ask these questions, we usually expect a positive response. Sometimes we get a negative one, and when we do, it can catch us unawares.Oftentimes, we don't expect our friends and sometimes even our families to be 100% honest about how they feel, because in truth, we aren't always honest about how we feel ourselves. In 2007, the HSE published a report on awareness and attitudes toward mental health in Ireland. It concluded that there was a stigma attached to the issue of mental health amongst the population, and that for things to improve, mental health would have to become more of an 'everyday issue'. So here i go, without any real education on the subject, i am going to offer my two cents. That makes it more everyday, right?

It would be naive to think that the previously dominant position of the Catholic Church in Irish society was to no detriment on the way we see ourselves and our place in the world, both as individual people and as a nation. Let's take the basic symbol of the Catholic religion-the crucifixion. Have you ever considered the sub-conscious message in worshiping a man bleeding to an excruciatingly painful death on an ancient device of execution? We are introduced to this at such a young age. It's inscripted on our minds to the point that by adulthood, it doesn't strike us as odd. What message does it send? Does it make us feel unworthy of trying to better ourselves as emotional beings? Could it be that it makes us feel guilty for feeling down?

'Jesus suffered for us. So our suffering is a small price to pay for our eternal salvation. So just put up with it. Don't be moaning about your problems. Keep them to yourself.'

I'm aware religious people do a lot of positive things for our communities, but is it crazy to suggest that an inherent part of their faith may be at the very least, kind of weird. Could there be a connection with the strength of Catholicism in this country with the previously archaic attitude to mental health?

Of course there was, and still is, another force at play in mental health in Ireland-booze. Let's not beat around the bush. We love our drink. Imagine Ireland without alcohol...Difficult? Our introduction to drink usually comes in our mid-teens. Some of us aren't interested. I can clearly remember catching sight of many of my teenage friends secretly pouring some of their drink onto the grass and feigning drunkenness. Maybe they were doing it out of fear of getting caught. Or maybe they just didn't like the taste. Whatever it was, it seemed important for them to keep up appearances. Anyway, somewhere afterward we learn to like drink, not necessarily the taste, but the feeling it incurs. It's the social lubricant that opens us up, gives us the courage to talk to potential mates and generally makes us think less about things. It also offers hangovers, which can eventually become a familiar state of fear, anxiety and loneliness. Of course we don't need to be hungover to feel the negative effects of alcohol. Anyone who has ever been drunk will know that it also acts as an amplifier. It's fair to say that anyone who encounters troublesome issues in their heads whilst drinking can easily be diverted onto a bleak train of thought that leaves even the seemingly happiest of us in a state of raw disillusion. The power of this disillusion is reflected in the fact that a 2002 study found that alcohol had been found in the blood of 80% of suicide victims in a given area. Others get angry. Why?
'Ah he's a sound lad, he just gets a bit aggressive when he's drunk.'
Too often, we fail to ask 'About what?' Instead, we usually avoid the awkwardness of confronting the perpetrator in sober time, because we know it's all because of some emotional defect that's too much of a touchy subject to get into.

People suffering from emotional and psychological problems such as depression often refer to how alone they feel. This can only increase the feeling of hopelessness and despair that can eventually catalyze suicidal thoughts. If we fuse this with the previously mentioned 'accepted suffering' brought on by religion, it's easy to see how messy things can get. It's an old cliche, but it remains universally true that bottling up problems is extremely nonconstructive. However, the stigma attached to mental health in Ireland often eclipses such common sense. The HSE report mentioned earlier also reported that 62% of people would not want others knowing if they had a mental health problem. In liberal America, having a therapist is almost a status symbol. How many Hollywood films have we seen where characters routinely refer to their 'shrink', or where the therapeutic session is glamourised in dramatic episodes of hypnotherapy? Of course, this isn't without it's negative consequences. Yet it highlights how different attitudes can be to mental health in other parts of the world.

So after all that, it's safe to say that the Irish probably have to battle a little harder than others in coming to terms with emotional and psychological problems. Some who read this piece will see it as a harsh commentary on our national personality. Don't get me wrong. There are lots of positive characteristics of the Irish people that make us unique as a people. However, overcoming things like a particularly hard economic recession will count for little if we don't look after our mental health first. Both as persons and and as a people.

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