The first thing I ever consciously felt was depression. The first thing I ever noticed was its presence squatting and growing against the rim of my skull, clamouring the space intended for my brain. My very faculty of self-awareness was obsessed with depression, hellbent on it, spending all its time on it, blind to the concepts of happiness or at least contentment I otherwise could have encompassed.
I don’t know why depression inhered in me. I don’t know why my consciousness buried its head under that black water and would not come up for air. Therapy bounced off the film of mental illness pulled taut over me because I was too young to understand what therapy was. The clinic was nothing more than the place of the half-day off school. And yet before, during and after my appointments with the psychiatrist, I understood on a primal level that I was to keep quiet about the whole affair.
The persisting societal attitude would describe this in a very particular way. It would identify a problem – Niall was depressed. It would identify a cause – stigma. It would prescribe a solution – talk about it. This attitude holds an indomitable position over mental health discourse in Ireland. The formula has been imbued in us. We have been raised to connect the terminology, to take as fundamental truth that the demise of stigma will come hand in hand with “talking about it”.
Why is that so? Because the slogan is all you need in order to appear to care about mental health. In fact, its most fervent proselytisers are the very same who fear meaningful commitment to substantive improvement of mental health services in Ireland. Through their relentless, self-aggrandising promotion of the slogan, the state and to a certain extent corporations and celebrity influencers, have created a contradiction.
We have been raised to connect the terminology, to take as fundamental truth that the demise of stigma will come hand in hand with ‘talking about it’
They flaunt progressiveness in the form of dogged advocacy for “talking about it”, while at the same time adopting only a narrow conception of what “it” is. They, for instance, understand mental illness to refer only to depression and anxiety. Even in their discussion of that common pair, they never deign, crucially, to platform or speak of their realities.
If the fundamental benefit that “talking about it” seeks to confer is a space for people to fully and honestly express themselves, then this is nowhere near fruition. For example, I understand mental illness to be a physical experience as much as anything else. It is unpretty. It feels grimy, filthy, disgusting. And yet the common portrayal of depression is in the form of sanitary suffering, a graceful state of being down in oneself.
When I turn on the television, I never see myself reflected there. No characters speak candidly about the impotence forced upon them by antidepressants. When I turn on the radio, I do not hear interviews with people I can fully relate to. They are not allowed to describe how their idea of pain was perverted, how they used to associate a damp comfort with the blood elicited by self harm. There is no talk about old photos where your face has a palpable sheen of depressed grease on it, or where your clothes are all blooming with the yellow rot of sweat stains. It does not seem safe, yet, to talk about how hygiene is one of the first things to go out the door with depression.
Though nurses come to school to scare us from sex, to show us graphic, blown-up images of worst case scenario STDs, the idea is too repulsive to bring us a guest who could describe the dehumanisation of having a panic attack in a usual place of refuge, of losing the association of safety with the local shop, college, home.
It is unpretty. It feels grimy, filthy, disgusting. And yet the common portrayal of depression is in the form of sanitary suffering, a graceful state of being down in oneself
I have very few idols. I know of very few famous people who are allowed to speak as frankly as they want about mental illness. I know of very few characters in books, movies, or shows who represent not only accurate, but fully fledged portrayals of mental illness. I know of very few public representatives who acknowledge the causality between their failure to provide mental health services and deaths by suicide. I know of very few platforms for speech for those groups within Irish society who are disproportionately affected by suicide such as the Travelling community.
Young eyes and ears, especially, need to see themselves reflected. When we say “talk about it”, we need to think of who is facilitated to talk, where and what they are allowed to say. Direct Provision, for example, is increasingly understood as a mental health crisis in and of itself. What do the government mean, then, when they espouse “talking about it” while at the same time having the Department of Justice monitor posts criticising Direct Provision on social media?
How do we progress? Some would say we must tackle shame, a concept similarly understood to be at the root of our mental health problems. That’s fair. All Irish know shame. In Ireland we suffer behind closed doors. We kill ourselves in private because it would only be embarrassing to make noise, make fuss, even in suicide. Modesty and timidity are sacred here and they find us even in our darkest moments. My attempts, some half-hearted, some not, were all conducted in respectful isolation. The silence of my own bedroom, the emptiness of abandoned construction sites.
I do think shame contributed to this, but really, stigma has very little to do with “talking about it” and shame for many people, including myself. I’ve spoken my soul until I lost my voice. I’m beyond shame. What our preoccupation with those things really looks like is me reading banners sporting vague aphorisms in school, downloading mindfulness apps and podcasts by the dozen, hearing the millionth celebrity co-signing meditation or exercise on the radio then going home lonelier than ever and contemplating self harm. It looks like inane slogans stamped and sold on Instagram print pages, like the insulting, sickly sweet, all-subsuming vice of rigorous positivity in the face of indelible suffering.
Young eyes and ears, especially, need to see themselves reflected. When we say “talk about it”, we need to think of who is facilitated to talk, where and what they are allowed to say
These are the waves of discourse and the solutions for the dirty words – the impotence, the ruination on our bodies – are the drops in the ocean. The real stigma is not silence. It is a cacophony. A deafening, distracting cacophony. It’s white noise generated by those with the power to do something. Even if we got the representation, if we got to talking about it, did away with shame, we still wouldn’t be substantially better off.
Because in reality, of course I’m not angry at celebrities or school banners or Instagram print pages or people or charities promoting talking about it. I am angry at the absence of mental health services provided by the state. The common person can do nothing but “talk about it” because they have no other choice. They are given no other option. So many are left without therapy, or are put on long waiting lists. We see no state campaigns saying “go to a psychiatrist” because they know so few can afford this. To properly understand mental illness, we must not think of our problem as us not “talking about it”, or the prevalence of shame. We must think of our problem as the lack of political will to provide solutions.
So please, talk about it by all means. It can bring solidarity, peace and healing. But then let it be known to your representatives that you are sick of talking. Let it be known that there is a direct correlation between the lack of housing and mental illness. Let it be known that you do not want to just talk, but that you want an end to the deaths by suicide suffered by those deprived of an adequate standard of living in Direct Provision.
Male mental health advocates in particular, when sharing your next social media campaign raising awareness, know that awareness is inert when left alone. Know that it needs you to take it one step further. Know that as mental health advocates our priority must be demanding from the state the provision of mental health services for all and the mitigation of the socio-economic conditions that exacerbate mental illness in the average person.