Media still too quick and willing to stigmatise depression

This column was published in The Mayo News on Tuesday 31st March 2015.

It was difficult last week to miss coverage of the Germanwings plane crash that claimed 150 lives in the French Alps. A catastrophe of unimaginable proportions, it embodied every private fear we’ve all tried to bury when getting on a plane. The horror experienced by the 150 passengers on board as it dawned on them what was about to happen is the stuff of our worst nightmares, and the proximity of the tragedy undoubtedly cast a chill over us all.

Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz is now, sadly, a household name. Remarkable by his ordinariness, his Facebook page depicted him as a smiling, leather jacket-clad sportsman interested in travel, music, and clubs. Apparently popular, he appeared well-known and respected in his community. By all accounts, a perfectly normal young man who happened to fly planes for a living.

So what made Lubitz decide to commit, apparently out of the blue, such an abhorrent act of violence in such a calm and calculated manner?

The simple answer is that we don’t know. No-one could, at this point, claim to know with certainty. But at the time of writing, on Friday morning, the majority of the tabloid newspapers claimed to have the answer.

It was depression, they screamed. It emerged that Andreas Lubitz is said to have sought psychiatric help for “a bout of heavy depression” six years ago, which necessitated a break from his flight training. After he was cleared to resume he passed all subsequent tests – including psychological tests – with flying colours, and was subject to regular medical checks.

These last details appear to have been overlooked by many of the tabloids, who, high on outrage, published screaming headlines such as: “German who deliberately crashed Airbus had a long history of depression – so why was he let anywhere near a plane?”, “Why on earth was he allowed to fly?”, ”Depressed pilot crashed jet” and charmingly, “Cockpit maniac”.

While the families of the deceased should be prioritised and respected in the analysis of this disaster, responsible media reporting should not be overlooked, and the messages emanating from those headlines demonstrate that while we might think we have progressed when it comes to normalising mental health, ultimately, the willingness to stigmatise those with problems is never far away.

If depression is being touted as the primary reason for Lubitz’s actions, it any wonder there is still a reluctance to talk about mental health? In particular, is it any wonder that there is a particular reluctance to disclose mental health problems in the workplace? Nearly 6 in 10 people believe that being open about a mental health problem at work would negatively affect their career prospects. Reading headlines like this, is it any wonder?

Discourse like this perpetuates the damaging myth that those with mental illness are more likely to be violent. Should no-one who has suffered depression in their lifetime be permitted to hold positions with responsibility for the safety of other people? If that were the case, we’d have a lot of people sitting at home. As someone who has, should I be forbidden to get behind the wheel of a car, lest I get a murderous urge to plough it into someone? While everyone’s experience is different, many will understand that when depression strikes, it’s often about as much as you can do to get out of bed in the morning, let alone murder 150 people.

We can speculate endlessly on what drove Lubitz to do what he did. Mental health issues may have been a contributory factor, but it is impossible to attribute them as a cause.  Too frequently, when a violent act is committed, the tendency is to point to mental ill-health as the primary reason. And when the media presents it in such a way, it’s not just hurtful to those of us who have experienced problems, it’s damaging and it’s irresponsible. It’s also downright lazy.

At the time of writing, investigators claimed they had found a ‘clue’ in Lubitz’s home that might shed some light on why he did what he did. For the families and friends of the deceased, we can only hope that such answers are forthcoming. But they will be cold comfort.

 

Germanwings plane crash Alps memorial

Connected – but are we connecting?

As published in the European Newspaper of the Year, The Mayo News on Tuesday 11th November 2014 🙂

In recent weeks, Fr. Brendan Hoban, a prominent member of the Association of Catholic Priests, appealed to Irish Bishops to ignore a Vatican directive instructing priests to remain at the altar during the Sign of Peace ritual during Mass. Because of its position in the ceremony, right before Communion, it is suggested that the hustle and bustle of the handshake disrupts the spiritual preparation of those preparing to receive the Sacrament, and one assumes, those administering it. However, the directive, according to Fr. Hoban, could do “untold damage” to the church, by destroying a custom that is part and parcel of pastoral care. If implemented, it would mean that priests should desist from offering the sign of peace to newlywed couples and their loved ones and to grieving families during funeral ceremonies. We are told that the Church and the church community are one and the same, but this unfortunate directive would essentially serve to create another barrier between the clergy and the community. And that’s a shame – for both.

Plenty could be written about the coldness, the heavy-handedness of the Vatican, and the chasm that exists between its reality and the lived reality of the lives of ordinary church members (and many of the clergy, human beings themselves), but – you can breathe a sigh of relief – I’ll save that for another day. Rather, what struck me about the directive was the way it aims to create distance and establish barriers where really, the need to demolish them appears far more prudent and necessary.

Once upon another lifetime, an old friend elbowed me and whispered during the Sign of Peace at a wedding. “Look around you”, he said. “Everyone in the place is smiling.” Now, it should be said that the same fella had a tendency to prank you during the Sign of Peace by holding onto your hand like a vice grips and not releasing it until either it turned blue or you made an undignified show of yourself trying to shake him off, whichever happened first, but unnerving habits aside, he had a point. Just reaching out, looking someone else in the eye and shaking their hand had lifted the room and filled it with a new light. The simple act of connecting, wishing someone else well. Surely that’s something that should be encouraged, not dissuaded?

It’s a thought that’s stayed with me down the years, and particularly so as we evolve into more technology-dependent beings. We’re privileged enough to have multiple means of connecting and communicating, yet sometimes it feels like we’re retreating further and further from each other. Where once we might have written a note, picked up the phone or knocked on the neighbour’s door, we now communicate using SMS, email, Facebook. Instead of looking someone in the eye, we stare at a screen. Sure, technology makes the world so much smaller, it’s a godsend for those with loved ones far away, and it facilitates business interactions in a manner light years away from fax machines and hand-delivered memos.  The likes of Twitter also enables us to connect with people that would have been previously out of reach – people that might previously have only featured on CD covers, posters on our walls and our dreams –  but how meaningful are those connections?

It’s hard not to wonder if we’re becoming more reclusive – and dare I say, lazy – when it comes to those in closer proximity. When I was growing up, in true country childhood style, no-one called ahead to ask if they could visit. The very idea was scoffed at; they just turned up on the doorstep, often in substantial numbers. It was the norm, and it was actually quite nice, unless the host had no biscuits in the house. Now, we make appointments for face-to-face contact and book ourselves in like we would to the dentist’s chair. Running through my neighbourhood in Dublin recently, I couldn’t help but notice the proliferation of iron security gates outside houses. A safeguard, or a barrier? To me, I must admit, they say one thing loud and clear – “Keep your distance”.  The traditional Irish welcome now comes with a raft of terms and conditions, if you ever get to cross the threshold of your neighbour’s home. Indeed, how many of us living in suburbia can claim to even know their neighbours?  It’s not just in the home, though, it’s at work too – those of us working in open-plan offices will be no stranger to communicating via email with the person sitting next to us – to my embarrassment I’m frequently guilty of this crime against civility and common sense.

I can’t help wondering how this trend will continue into the future and to what extent communication technologies will develop, but one thing’s for certain. No matter how technologically advanced we become, no matter how independent, no matter how futuristic our communication tools, none of them will ever trump the power of a smile, a hug, a handshake at Mass or elsewhere, or a simple chat over a cup of tea. And biscuits only make it better.

A little note on #littlethings

Today sees the launch of the HSE’s new mental health promotion campaign, Little Things. The campaign is a new, positive wellbeing campaign, designed not quite as a suicide prevention measure, but rather, in order to help us to help ourselves and others through the normal, everyday dips in mood that most of us experience at some point in our lives. It’s about educating, empowering and equipping us to deal with tough times, and just as importantly, reminding us to reach out to others, who may be going through their own difficulties. Ultimately, the aim is early intervention, protection and prevention – stopping normal ‘dips’ from becoming more serious or long-term problems.

littlethings2

Disclaimer from the outset – I was involved in certain elements of the development of this campaign on a professional level. I found it a compelling and educational process, and speaking to members of the public about the new messaging and about mental health in general demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that people really want to make their own difference when it comes to mental health issues in Ireland, but that they’re not always comfortable with doing so. Males in particular freely admit that this is an area they sometimes struggle with, and would like to see conversation around it becoming more normal and acceptable – and less of a big deal.

What was really striking was just how difficult the terms “mental wellbeing” or “emotional wellbeing” were to grasp. Any discussion of mental health invariably reverts to the traditional mental ILL-health narrative, and the concept of looking after your mind, as you would your body, and taking a preventative approach as you would with your physical health, is still alien to many. As a matter of urgency therefore, we need to change that, start educating ourselves and being more proactive in this regard.

Secondly, and this is evident from looking at the #littlethings stream on twitter last night, particularly after Enda Kenny broke a twitter hiatus of almost four years to lend his support to the campaign, there is real anger out there. Fury that the government can be seen to get behind this campaign, yet fail the country so utterly when it comes to the provision of services to those in difficulty who urgently need them. The government, in this year’s “giveaway” budget had a golden opportunity to reinstate the €15million in funding that they whipped away from the “ringfenced” budget last year, yet chose not to do so. €15million is a relatively small sum in the grand scheme of things, especially when you bear in mind that €68m was allocated to the Horse and Greyhound fund (wait for it) “in recognition of the significant shortfall in funding going into the horse and greyhound sectors in recent years as a result of the downturn in the economy”. Public anger is therefore completely and utterly justified, and not for a second should this campaign be deemed a solution to the problems of severe mental ill-health and high suicide rates.

However, that is not to say there isn’t a place for a campaign like this – in fact, quite the opposite. Fixing our problems with mental ill-health in Ireland shouldn’t just consist of implementing suicide prevention measures. Rather, we should be speaking to people who sit on all points of the mental health spectrum – i.e., every one of us, at any given time. As Alan says in one of the TV ads (below) “Thoughts can become feelings if you let them” – a line that succinctly sums up how mental health issues can develop over time, and a decline in mental health can be gradual. You don’t normally just wake up one morning in severe difficulty – it typically happens over time. This campaign is therefore designed to interrupt, to educate, to empower, and to make us aware that there are things we can do for ourselves and others – things that are scientifically proven to have a positive effect – at an earlier stage that can turn the tide before we reach crisis point.

And critically, it should serve as a reminder that every single one of us has a role to play by reaching out to others who may be experiencing their own tough times. And even if they’re not, a little kindness can make an immeasurable difference to someone else’s wellbeing without you ever knowing. Take it from someone who knows.

little things

The campaign is launching today, so you’ll probably see it on your screens at some point this week.  On social media, follow @littlethingshub,  like yourmentalhealth.ie on Facebook, and feel free to share the little things that help you to mind your mind – they may well help others. Check out the newly designed website yourmentalhealth.ie – a “one stop shop” for information on mental health, wellbeing, and also, importantly a directory of support services of all types available throughout the country.

We all need to help each other to prevent suicide

Wednesday 10th September was World Suicide Prevention Day. There are now lots of days and weeks designated for mental health awareness, so much so that it’s starting to become a bit confusing, but I reckon there’s probably never a bad time to be reminded to mind your mind. Next Friday October 10th is World Mental Health Day. With these two dates in mind,  I wrote this column for the Mayo News on Tuesday 16th September.

Last Wednesday was World Suicide Prevention Day, a global day designated for raising awareness of suicide and suicide prevention. Traditionally shrouded in silence and shame, the stigma with which suicide was traditionally regarded in Ireland is being slowly cast aside. But as welcome as that is, it makes the consequences no less devastating, and indeed it is an occurrence with which many of us are all too painfully familiar. Recent statistics from the World Health Organisation suggest that at a global level, someone dies by suicide every 40 seconds. Ireland has the fourth highest suicide rate in Europe, and 475 people died this way last year. Over one a day. That’s a lot of grieving families, partners and friends.

Suicide is complex, as are the reasons behind it. There is, however an established link between suicide and mental ill-health, and we are finally starting to talk about it. The conversation has developed significantly in recent years, and we are slowly but surely moving towards a point where it is just as normal and acceptable to talk about your mental health (or ill-health – there is an important distinction) as it is your physical wellbeing. However, it truly is a case of a lot done, a lot more to do.

Crucially, the question people are starting to ask is “What can we do?” This is a welcome development, given the countless campaigns to raise awareness of suicide and depression. At this point, I think it’s fair to say we’re all well aware of the problem. Now what we need are solutions, and the truth is, every single one of us can make a difference. To put it bluntly, it’s high time we all looked in the mirror, and stepped up and took some responsibility for suicide prevention.

It’s all very well advising people struggling with their mental wellbeing to “reach out”, “get help” and “talk to someone”. That’s the overriding message, and yes, it’s good advice – more often than not, it will help. But as someone who has suffered in the past with mental ill-health, the fundamental problem with telling people who are struggling to “get help” is that it places all the onus on someone who is unwell to take that first step. What if, for a change, those who are well started doing some of the reaching out? When you’re in that dark place, when you’re so unwell that you’re starting to believe that not being alive at all would be preferable to living with unrelenting darkness, it’s common to withdraw and isolate yourself. “Just talking” to someone can seem like a mammoth task. When I experienced my first bout of depression over fourteen years ago, I didn’t leave my house for nearly two weeks. I needed someone to reach out to me, and I was one of the lucky ones – somebody did. I will forever be grateful to that person, because I owe them my life.

If we are serious about tackling suicide, we all need step up to the plate, and start being kinder to each other. We need to be cognisant of the fact that 1 in 4 of the people around us will be suffering from a mental health issue (mild or major) at any one time. Every single one of us at some point will experience emotional difficulties. We don’t know what others are dealing with in their day-to-day lives, and there may not be any signs. But there are lots of little things we can all do. A phone call, an email to someone you haven’t spoken to in a while; even a kind word to a stranger can make the world of difference. When you ask someone how they are, listen to their reply. Remind your loved ones that you love them.

If someone comes to you for help, it can be daunting, but don’t panic – you don’t need to be a professional to help; neither do you need to solve the problem. Just listen. For as little or as long as it takes. Hang in there; don’t give up on them. Believe me when I say that simply being there can be enough. [Update: If you do wish to equip yourself, the HSE ASIST course is an excellent free resource – read my account of it here.]

Let’s look in the mirror and take some responsibility here. Let’s as a community educate ourselves and be more thoughtful, supportive and kinder to each other. And let’s end this scourge on our society for once and for all.

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Beyond Satire

Yesterday, 1st July 2014 saw an incident occur in Dublin city centre.

An incident that, in the way it played out, spoke volumes about our relationship with mental health in Ireland. Faced with the reality of  a potential emergency, the Irish public and media reacted in a way that painted a stark, grim and dare I say it, depressing picture of our real attitudes towards those who behave in a way that suggests mental distress.

At approximately 10.30pm yesterday morning, a shirtless man was spotted on the roof of the Abercrombie and Fitch building on College Green, where he was seen climbing back and forth between the “peak” of the building, to the roof just behind it. He then moved to the adjacent, taller Ulster Bank building where he continued to move around the roof, and for a time balanced precariously on top of a statue on top of one of the buildings. Gardai were called to the scene, where they talked to the man for a number of hours (while the crowd looked on) and eventually, to their credit (and I’m sure, great relief) saw that he alighted safely from the roof.

I wasn’t there. But I know this, because within minutes of the man being spotted, a crowd of hundreds of people gathered on College Green. They stood, and they watched. I know, because they started posting photos on social media. I know, because a number of national news outlets and “entertainment sites” – too many to name, in fact – under the guise of reporting ensuing traffic disruptions, decided to post photos of the man on their webpages. Photos that in some cases, would arguable render the man identifiable, particularly to friends or family. Some even went as far as posting video.

Because it’s “news”. Because we “live in a digital age”. Because news is now “real time reporting”.

Conveniently, every news outlet that went ahead, published images of this man and told the nation what was happening on Dame Street chose to ignore the Samaritans’ responsible reporting guidelines. Guidelines, which were issued because, according to the Chairman of the Press Council of Ireland:

“The media … has a heavy responsibility in the manner in which it reports incidents of suicide and self-harm. I know that they are anxious to meet that responsibility.”

Really?

That must be why they ignored the following advice, then, from page 9 of the guidelines:

“Avoid dramatic or emotional images and footage, such as a person standing on a ledge.Try not to illustrate a report with specific locations, such as a bridge or cliff, especially if this is a place where people frequently take their own lives.”

and did exactly the opposite.

It’s not like the media just forgot, or that they weren’t aware of the guidelines. Within seconds of posting the images, amidst the ensuing comments, callous jokes and bitter dismissals of a man “wasting taxpayers’ money”, numerous members of the public objected to the images, and posted links to the page on the Samaritans’ website. All objections were ignored. Apart from Broadsheet.ie, who, to their credit, removed the image. TheJournal.ie closed the comments on their article – the same article that included a number of photos and videos.

Those guidelines are there for a reason. They’re there to protect other people, and in particular, people who may be at risk of suicide or self-harm themselves. So basically, some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

(Incidentally, other guidelines on that list advise not providing detail on how a person died by suicide, and not reading out the contents of a suicide note. But of course, certain factions of the media have form in ignoring them.)

Of course, it can be argued that this wasn’t a suicide, so these guidelines didn’t apply. That none of us knew why the man was on the roof.

Sure, we didn’t. We didn’t even know whether it was related to a mental health issue. True.

Was it any of our business? No.

But did we know for sure that we weren’t looking at a man in serious distress? No.

Was there a concern for his safety? Yes.

Clearly, in the eyes of the Irish media, that concern for a man’s safety was superseded by the need to get the scoop. Everyone else was doing it, so why shouldn’t they?

That, unfortunately, is  how certain elements of our media (not all – there are some wonderful, conscientious individual exceptions) view people who behave in an “abnormal” manner.  They encourage people to turn voyeur. To watch, to point, to laugh and joke. Much like a circus freak of the 19th century. Very few are willing to take a stand, while there are clicks to be gained. How far we’ve come.

Then – then! –  because that wasn’t enough, the news outlets decided they’d turn the images over to social media. Just to make sure that as many people as possible all over Ireland knew that someone in Dublin was in trouble (and that there were traffic disruptions) so that they could all watch him, and the situation play out. Just like a TV programme, for our entertainment.

And we all know how social media works, on a good day. Complete with the usual crimes against spelling and grammar, the comments came flooding in.

From the Irish Times Facebook page:

blo

 

 

 

 

From the Irish Independent Facebook page:

Irish Indo FB

 

 

 

And from Twitter.

I could go on. I could post hundreds more, all screen shot from yesterday’s news stories (though many of the crueller ones have since been deleted).

Can you sense the sympathy? The  compassion? The empathy?

So it appears, for all the mental health awareness campaigns, all the suicide awareness discussions, all the reminders for people to watch out for the signs,  for each other, to show a bit of compassion and kindness, to talk and listen, when faced with a person who looked like he was in crisis, Ireland dismissed him without even attempting to understand, and reverted to cold, hard type. Some online expressed their disgust with what was happening – about the cruelty, and about the images. Which is encouraging, to some extent. But those objections were roundly ignored. The snide comments kept coming, and the images stayed.

In Dame Street, 300 people stayed in the area for the duration of the incident, watching and waiting. Waiting for what? Who knows. After four hours, the man alighted, and everyone went home. A day of entertainment over.

And what now of our friend on the roof?

Who knows? And who really cares?

The below image links to an article worth reading, from the consistently excellent satirical site, Waterford Whispers News. Not for the first time, it holds a mirror up to Ireland – to us –  and the way we behave when faced with vulnerable people in our society. Time and time again, it’s been demonstrated that we either ignore them, we dismiss them or we simply ridicule them.

How far we’ve come, indeed.

 

Time to Talk

Today is National Time to Talk Day, and as such, it’s a good day to reflect on what it means to talk, but also what it means to listen. It’s important.

Time to talk

The national conversation around mental health often focuses on the message “Talk to someone”. But to talk, you need to have someone to listen, right?

It can be hard to know what to do if someone decides to talk to you about a mental health issue. They might just feel a bit down, or they might be more worried about themselves. And if they’ve chosen you to talk to, that responsibility can feel a bit daunting, or it may feel like too big a problem for you to take on.

That’s fine. We’re all human.

But if someone decides to talk to you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve chosen you in the hope that you’ll solve all their problems. They may simply need to put how their feelings into words, or share them with someone. Sometimes doing that alone can make all the difference, so having someone to sit and listen and empathise with how they feel can make all the difference.

If you do feel you need some tips on how to say something back, the Green Ribbon website has some really useful advice. And it’s just normal, everyday stuff, not out of anyone’s reach.

This poem by Robert Frost sums it right up.

“When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.”

So today on Time To Talk day, in your conversations , make a point of really listening to what the other person has to say, without distractions. Give them your full attention – give them five minutes or half an hour of your time.  When you ask “how are you?” be aware that the answer may not be “I’m grand”.

And that’s grand.