Response to Mental Health Reform, Amnesty International Ireland and See Change
Many thanks for your correspondence and the opportunity to set out how I envisage my Presidency engaging with the pivotal issue of mental health. I consider that the President can play a very significant role in combating stigma and inequality experienced by persons with mental health problems.
It has been the case that until recently that persons who experienced mental illness were largely invisible within our society – sometimes denied their basic human rights and warehoused in institutions disconnected from the community – at the periphery of our society. I have been concerned for some time that many young people who experience mental ill-health are not reaching out for help. Lifting the stigma around mental health issues will be crucial I feel in tackling anxiety and fear felt by so many around this issue and reducing the high rate of suicide. Stigma also affects the families of those suffering from mental ill-health and can be an obstacle to them in seeking the support they need.
You rightly raise the issues of equality; combating stigma and discrimination against persons with mental health problems, promoting human rights, promoting change in attitudes and behaviour and providing appropriate supports and opportunities to allow those with mental-health problems to more fully contribute to the life of the nation.
Addressing these critical issues as President, I would look to the general principles contained in Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. These principles espouse respect for the inherent dignity and autonomy of persons living with mental problems, including the freedom to make one’s own choices. The principles go further and include full and effective participation in society, non-discrimination, and respect for diversity and humanity of every person. These are principles that should apply universally to everyone but have in the past been denied to those experiencing mental illness, often restricting their inclusion in Irish society.
As President I will work with Mental Health Reform and other partners to promote positive attitudes to mental health. Article 8 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities refers to awareness raising and places an obligation on Ireland, as a signatory to the Convention, to undertake to adopt immediate, effective and appropriate measures to foster respect for the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities and combat stereotypes, prejudices and harmful practices relating to persons living with mental illness. I believe that, as President, I would contibute effectively to meeting that obligation.
If elected, I will work to break down negative attitudes and discrimination, highlight initiatives for inclusion and actively and vigorously promote positive measures to support mental health amongst all our citizens. I note that Mental Health Reform with its partners have already taken positive initiatives through social marketing and educating the public with a view to creating an Ireland where people can achieve and enjoy the highest attainable standard of mental health. As President I will support this work in any way that I can.
There are clear limits to the office of President in that it cannot seek to develop policy or promote legislative initiatives in the area of mental health. However the President can help place an issue on the national agenda through the symbolic power of the role as a representation of what binds us together as a nation.
I have stated throughout my campaign that I am committed to opening a new chapter in Ireland’s story – a move away from individualism and consumerism towards a more inclusive and creative society and a renewal of the Civic Republican dream of our founders. If elected as President, I will amplify the voices of all those, who have too often been left at the margins of society, including those persons who experience or have experienced mental illness. If elected I will celebrate the human spirit and the positive value of diversity and highlight the contribution of persons living with mental ill-health as valued parts of our communities.
The awareness raising role is a crucial one and comes at a crossroads for us here in Ireland. The current reviews of the Mental Health Act 2001, the Criminal Law (Insanity) Act 2006 and the development of modern legal capacity legislation provide us with a unique opportunity to focus on mental health issues as Ireland moves towards the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Any changes in legislation must also be accompanied by a change in national conciousness and that is the area in which the President can best contribute.
To conclude in terms of mental health I see my Presidency as one which will constructively complement the work of social movements such as Mental Health Reform in raising awareness and achieving a paradigm shift in thinking about mental illness in tune with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Michael D. Higgins