by Lucy Fitzgerald
May was Mental Health Awareness month in Ireland. Key television ad campaigns encouraged those suffering from depression to reach out for help and high profile individuals shared their personal battles with depression. A month-long Green Ribbon campaign encouraged Irish people to openly discuss mental health and major events were held around the country raising vital funds for mental health organizations.
Despite this attention, the government’s reluctance to face up to Ireland’s mental health crisis is evident in their €15 million cut to mental health services in recent years. A Europe-wide report finds “Ireland has exceptionally high rates of suicide among young males and females but lacks a national strategy on prevention.” There are more deaths by suicide in Ireland each year than by road traffic accidents, yet the Road Safety Authority receives significantly more governmental resources than the mental health service.
Like many Irish youths, I have faced depression. In fact, last year was the most challenging year of my life. While focusing on obtaining my master’s degree, I neglected my friends and my hobbies. It was not long before I lost my appetite and became unable to sleep. My housemates quickly noticed that my behavior had changed and encouraged me to see a doctor. I was shocked when the doctor told me I was depressed and needed to go on anti-depressants. I have seen members of my family and friends fight the same battle with some of them taking their own lives. I never thought that it would happen to me.
It was only when I was able to access free counseling at my university that my health improved giving me the insight and tools to overcome depression. Unfortunately not everybody is as lucky as I was.
Irish youths cope with high unemployment and mass emigration of their family and friends. Ireland is the fourth highest nation in the EU for suicide among 15-24 year olds, with numbers increasing daily. The suicide rate among teenage girls is higher than any other EU state and suicide is the leading cause of death among young Irish men. A worrying phenomenon is that of suicide clusters or “copycat” suicides. The researchers of a recent study insist “Ireland needs a real-time database for teen and young adult suicide deaths to facilitate the early detection of evolving clusters.”
Young men from rural areas are a high-risk group for suicide as they are the hardest hit by job cuts and bank debt. They suffer from lack of support groups, which are concentrated in major cities and they cannot afford to pay €50 an hour for counseling. In Limerick, where I am from, there is a lack of after-care facilities and a three-month waiting list for help for people who have attempted suicide. A nurse working in the emergency department reveals to me, “Due to staff shortages, patients who present themselves as suicidal are left waiting for many hours despite requiring immediate attention.”
Despite the lack of government funds and facilities, efforts are being made to tackle this issue as was evident during Mental Health Awareness month. The Darkness into Light 5km walk/run, organized by Pieta House, the Suicide and Self Harm Crisis Centre, proved particularly successful with 80,000 participants. The Cycle against Suicide had 7,500 participants cycling for two weeks to “get the message out that ‘It’s OK not to be OK’ and it’s absolutely OK to ask for help”. There was also a Walk in my Shoes Selfie campaign.
Many individuals are also reaching out. A former sufferer of depression, Cormac Hayes, set up the “I Choose Life” Facebook page after he was disappointed by a meeting with his local government representative. In an interview, he describes that meeting: “I raised a number of issues such as better education about mental health, better qualifications for counselors so people can get the best help to deal with their situation, and to hold talks in villages, towns, and cities to break the stigma on mental health but I was pushed out the door with a leaflet explaining what depression and suicide was.” Hayes’ slogan for his Facebook page is “Let’s break the silence and let’s fight suicide.” People share their personal experiences and the page is full of uplifting messages. “I Choose Life” has over 12,000 likes.
Another anti-suicide campaigner Donal Walsh, a 16-year-old terminally ill cancer patient, appeared on The Saturday Night Show before his death. He expressed what life meant to him and why he wanted people to stop ending their lives. It had a powerful impact on viewers. He explained his battle with cancer: “Here I am for the 3rd time fighting for my life. I don’t have a choice, only God’s choice, and it hurts me seeing young people ending their life.”
Mental health charity organizations also do tremendous work. Aware caters to secondary school pupils through its positive mental health program called “Beat the Blues,” which has been delivered to over 60,000 students aged 15-18 in the past two years. An organizer explains, “the program helps young people learn practical ways to deal with concerns in life, and also helps them to understand how to look after their mental health and the importance of doing so.”
GROW, a World Community Mental Health Movement, provides support groups for people to share their stories. GROW has noted a 16 percent increase in young people’s attendance between 2010 and 2012. Yet, the organization is struggling to meet the demand as they have lost 25 percent of government funding since 2008. One employee describes their staffing crisis: “We are concerned that the €20 million investment, promised by the government, will not translate into the needed staff on the ground unless the recruitment takes place in a timely fashion and departing staff can be replaced and not have a repeat of last year. Of the 477 staff promised for 2013, just 4 percent had completed the recruitment process as of the end of September.”
I believe that a key way to address the crisis is by breaking the stigma of depression. Young people need to be taught that it is normal to feel down sometimes and to confide in each other. Instead the government over-relies on pills to solve the issue, with anti-depressants reportedly being prescribed more than 2.2 million times in 2009. The government should invest money in providing hospital accommodation specifically for young people, improve school and community supports, and increase the number and availability of counselors and psychologists. By doing this, we will be able to ‘turn the tide against suicide’ and save young peoples’ lives.
About the author: Lucy Fitzgerald is an Irishwoman who has lived in Spain, the United Kingdom, France, and Argentina. She is fluent in French, Spanish, and English and has an MSc in Gender and International Relations. Lucy is passionate about gender equality and development education. When she is not fundraising or campaigning, she is busy traveling and learning new languages.