Monday, January 16, 2012


Depression in modern day Ireland...

If you were to roam the streets of any major city throughout the world and ask the locals to sum up the Irish in a few, short sentences the chances are that terms like jolly, friendly, laidback and fun would  surface on numerous occasions. Inevitably less flattering adjectives such as ginger, drunken and imbeciles would also be used but hey nobody’s perfect. All in all the general consensus would be that we’re a quite likeable bunch the presence of whom would be sure to enliven even the most sedate of evenings. The accuracy of this stereotypical view is up for debate but like it or not that’s how we’re generally viewed by those on the continent. Much in the same way that Americans are viewed as brash ignoramuses, Italians as gesticulating Mother’s boys and Germans as humourless prudes so those of an Irish persuasion are seen as the merry buffoons of the world.  But just as our perceptions of other nationalities are generally far wide of the mark so the depiction of the average Irish person as a beer swilling, life and soul of the party type is, for the most part, wildly inaccurate.

One of the great intangibles of Irish culture is the omnipresent air of melancholy which resides all around us. Perhaps a remnant of the Saints and Scholars (or more likely the years of hardship and poverty brought about by our eventful history) this sense of barely concealed misery permeates Irish life at every turn and is much a part of us as Guinness, potatoes and the Ole, Ole chant. But not being the type to complain we take a deep breath, put the head down and just get on with things. For better or for worse this was the way of things for many a year and while the country made huge steps economically and socially there was still one great taboo in Irish life which went unspoken. I’m talking about the word which up until a couple of years you wouldn’t dare utter in public for fear of being openly mocked and derided and told to ‘get over yourself’. I’m talking about the Big D. Depression.

In some ways it almost feels like mental illness is a relatively new phenomenon in this country. We’ve now become accustomed to being continually buffeted with adverts advising us to look out for tell tale signs among friends and family and numbers to call should we be concerned about those we love. But for many years this simply wasn’t the case and those who suffered did so in silence. The notion of being open about succumbing to depression simply wasn’t plausible and if you feared negative connotations then you were most probably justified in doing so. For those who struggled for a voice within an archaic society the current explosion of ‘depression awareness’ must be bittersweet. Better late than never you might say but there is a certain irony in the fact that it took the fall of the Celtic Tiger and all that came with it to bring about this new found sympathy for those in suffering.

What can’t be denied is that more and more people in this country are presenting the classic symptoms of mental illness and requiring the help needed to overcome their difficulties.  A nation which rode high upon the wave of the nineties and early noughties has come crashing down to earth and for many the fall out has been simply too much to take. Are we the victims of our own greed? It may seem like a harsh thing to say but for those people whose illness stems from horrific childhoods, traumatic ordeals or being unfortunate enough to inherit depressive tendencies from their parents the idea of having all your cares washed away by the easing of financial woes is incomprehensible. I am not for one second suggesting that the woes of those most affected by the recession are in any way less serious than that of a person struggling to come to terms with the events of a harrowing childhood but I can’t help but wonder how quickly the focus would move to another topic should the country find itself flourishing economically once more.

 On a more positive note the offshoot of this heightened awareness is that the shame and stigma once experienced by those who suffer from depression has lessened somewhat as we as a nation have become better educated about what it is to be suffering from any form of mental illness. More and more people in the public eye have come out and spoken openly about their battles and no longer should anyone feel afraid to discuss their innermost fears with friends and family.  All of this is incredibly positive and we can only hope and pray that our country is putting a system in place which will be able to offer the kind of specialised support required by those afflicted. Traditionally most vulnerable the twentysomething male is still considered the most likely to suffer from forms of mental illness and paradoxically the most unlikely to seek help but even they must feel that they are not as isolated as they had once imagined. But as is so often the case in modern society there is a danger that we might be going too far and in the process harm those who we wish to protect.

As someone who has firsthand experience of this terrible disease, and that’s exactly what it is, a disease, I tend to notice any mention of it in the media and have found myself somewhat bemused by the sheer proliferation of features on this topic over the last couple of years. From a position where sufferers welcomed the exposure which mental illnesses were receiving it now appears that we have gone from one extreme to the other. Is it actually possible to go an entire day without hearing at least one news item relating to depression in Ireland today? I fully appreciate the need to inform those in need of the options available to them but I can’t help feeling that we are in serious danger of overkill. How long will it be before we begin to mirror the situation in other Western countries where even the slightest downturn in fortunes sees people scurry to the doctor for help when all that’s required is some patience and resolve.

Allied to the danger of convincing every second person that they may indeed be suffering from depression is the far more sinister threat of haunting those genuinely afflicted by the disease. Attempting to piece your life together once you’ve been diagnosed with clinical depression, or any other form of mental illness, is a particularly hard process and a battle that can span the entirety of a person’s life. In a scenario like this the sufferer may be glad of those all too precious times when they can simply forget about their troubles and live their life in much the same way as anyone else. But when the media insist on filling each and every outlet with reminders of this terrible disease it must sometimes feel like there’s no escape for those who are affected most deeply. Nobody is saying that these issues should not be highlighted by those charged with providing our daily news but when it gets to the stage where it feels like stories, features and adverts are just being shoehorned into the news because it’s the current hot topic then we have a problem.

While it may feel like the tone of this article is a negative one it is in actual fact more cautionary. Now that we have, belatedly, addressed the issue of depression in Ireland the challenge is to move forward and not repeat the mistakes made in other countries. Chief among those mistakes is the quick fire prescription of anti-depressants as a means of treating those with deep rooted issues or worse still prescribing them to those who did not require medication at all. By learning from these errors and ploughing our own furrow we may in time be able to boast a system which deals efficiently and sensitively with those who suffer. But no matter how much professional help may or may not be currently available to sufferers one thing which each and every person dealing with this illness needs is a strong circle of people around them. The role of family and friends in the life of a person dealing with depression can never be understated. Because ultimately it is they, not any of the health service executives or earnest politicians, who will be the ones to provide the sort of comfort and reassurance that not even a million awareness campaigns could hope to reproduce.

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