THERE IS SO MUCH WE DO NOT KNOW

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And yet if we com­mu­ni­cate, we can often be that small but cru­cial in­flu­ence on a life, that will tilt the bal­ance for the bet­ter be­tween dev­as­ta­tion and hope…

43. Mary Stokes Singer

From when I was about three or four years old, men­tal health chal­lenges have been a dom­i­nant, con­stant re­al­ity in my life. I grew up the youngest of a beau­ti­ful fam­ily, with five big broth­ers and two sis­ters. I was al­ways im­mensely proud of all my sib­lings – I re­mem­ber talk­ing of them all with real pride as a very small kid. I con­tinue to be im­mensely proud of them all. Sadly, the ab­so­lutely dev­as­tat­ing toll of schizophrenia, bipo­lar disor­ders and men­tal health is­sues wreaked com­plete havoc in our world.

In a fam­ily des­per­ately try­ing to do the right thing, with will­ing and com­mit­ted par­ents who lived for their chil­dren, the ab­so­lute lack of sup­ports – never mind ad­e­quate sup­ports – that con­tinue to­day had a mas­sive im­pact. We were a fam­ily left ‘to deal’ with these in­com­pre­hen­si­ble dif­fi­cul­ties. We were left ‘to deal’ with the ug­li­ness and in­ef­fec­tive­ness of psy­chi­atric treat­ment. We were left ‘to deal’ with the vi­o­la­tions and in­ca­pac­i­ties of psy­chi­atric ser­vices, and left ‘to cope’ with the shame, the guilt, the sav­age re­morse and ter­ri­ble tragic con­se­quences of an in­ad­e­quate sys­tem.

Ev­ery­thing in my life is af­fected by that his­tory and the on­go­ing per­sonal chal­lenges that are often a re­sult. I do not take any such is­sues lightly. My ca­reer in mu­sic. My love of Blues. My ca­reer as a singer and song­writer . Ev­ery­thing I ven­er­ate and ap­pre­ci­ate in the Arts. My work in ed­u­ca­tion. My com­mit­ment to guid­ance coun­selling. Ev­ery mo­ment of ev­ery day, from day to day en­gage­ment with peo­ple to think­ing on so­ci­ety and our world – ev­ery­thing is in­formed by my years of ex­pe­ri­ence of fa­mil­ial psy­chi­atric prob­lems, per­sonal men­tal health is­sues and some­times tragic out­comes.

Although I recog­nise that the woe­ful lack of knowl­edge and un­der­stand­ing of men­tal health I saw first-hand was ‘of a time’, I sug­gest that many of these is­sues re­main – notably the lack of un­der­stand­ing and shared open dis­cus­sion that is so im­por­tant on these top­ics. That, I ac­cept, is im­prov­ing slowly. But what of the need for funded and gen­uinely co-op­er­a­tive ser­vices, of fol­low up care and a se­ri­ous com­mit­ment to of­fer­ing sup­port to ev­ery­one af­fected by these is­sues?

I think that it is ab­so­lutely vi­tal that our un­der­stand­ing of Men­tal Health in­cludes a bet­ter ac­knowl­edge­ment of the dif­fer­ences and char­ac­ter­is­tics of men­tal health disor­ders and dif­fi­cul­ties, along with re­al­is­tic and re­spon­si­ble at­ten­tion to the types of treat­ments that are avail­able, and which are con­sid­ered to be ap­pro­pri­ate for those cat­e­gories – treat­ments that can be ef­fec­tive and use­ful.

We also need to recog­nise that we have to keep talk­ing, think­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing; and, above all, tack­ling the old aura of stigma as­so­ci­ated with men­tal dis­tress head on.

Be­cause the re­al­ity is that, when it comes to Men­tal Health, there is so much that we just DO NOT KNOW. We don’t fully know causes, or cures, not with any real author­ity. Per­haps, at best, we can mit­i­gate the im­pacts. But if we are en­gaged, we will, per­haps, at least un­der­stand bet­ter.

De­spite ad­vances, what is clear is that we re­main vul­ner­a­ble crea­tures. Many, if not all of us, teeter on the brink of ‘san­ity’ at ev­ery mo­ment. What is per­haps use­ful, then, is to re­mem­ber that, while ac­knowl­edg­ing our frailty, we should also re­mem­ber our strength.

It is good to ac­knowl­edge that we – as in­di­vid­u­als – can often be that small but cru­cial in­flu­ence on a life, that will tilt the bal­ance for the bet­ter be­tween dev­as­ta­tion and hope, be­tween de­struc­tion and growth. As a com­mu­nity, these are the things that we CAN take in­di­vid­ual and col­lec­tive re­spon­si­bil­ity for.

Be kind, be de­cent, imag­ine you are in that place of tur­moil and pain; try to un­der­stand, try to ac­cept with­out judg­ing. You may well de­serve to feel an­gry or hurt – but we must do ev­ery­thing we can to keep lis­ten­ing and shar­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing.

So, pub­lic aware­ness and de­vel­op­ing a car­ing so­ci­ety is para­mount. But un­der­stand­ing the roles and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties at­tached to ev­ery ‘men­tal health’ pol­icy or pro­gramme is also key. It is get­ting bet­ter here in Ire­land, but there’s still a long way to go.

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