During my tour of the country during this Presidential election campaign, I have encountered real and tangible despair. There can be no exaggeration that people are experiencing real stress in their lives and in perpetual agony about their futures.
I have spoken repeatedly about the need for job creation because jobs provide the foundations for people to build their lives upon, not only do jobs act as the glue that hold our communities together; a job gives a person a title, a sense of place in their community, a source of pride, a reason to get up in the morning.
Over the past few months, I have been privileged to meet with groups who experience mental health illness or groups who are acting as the frontline in helping those with mental health issues. There is real leadership and bravery embodied in figures like Paul Kelly, founder of Console and John & David McCarthy of Mad Pride Ireland. Both are an inspiration. They both have actively and selflessly sought to change language and actions away from negativity toward positivity. Their work, ethos and story are now more important than ever.
The support networks and advocacy groups that are already working tirelessly in our communities must be celebrated and recognised for the core service they bring in building community resilience networks, imparting hope and providing education and help to the people who most need it most. Access and removal of fear are now the pivotal points of address. We need a national conversation to encourage active community participation in the matter of mental health.
With suicide invaluable groups like Console and Pieta House, who I have also visited and learned much from, are vital because they give those who are vulnerable somewhere to go and someone to speak to. We need to continue to create space where dialogue free of fear can be had. We need a national conversation. Volunteers who provide give themselves over to listen and help someone by just being at the end of a phone line create a space where people express their grief and find a way to cope. The training and public awareness provided by these groups is also essential as those who might be impacted professionally or personally by suicide are in a position to provide assistance to others.
Events like World Suicide Prevention Day – which my team and I were delighted to support – this year are exceptionally important for not only do they bring people together, they create a united visual display of support – imparting real strength to those individuals, to those families, to those friends, those classmates, to those communities affected by suicide. Suicide and mental health problems do not just affect the person – it can affect us all directly or indirectly. The loss of a person to suicide and its reverberations through the fabric of society cannot go unaddressed. We all have a role to play in starting the dialogue, and this starts between ‘you’ and ‘me’.
My experience over many years of youth and community work has inspired me, deepened my resolve and strengthened my belief in the power of communities to support and develop together. The state of our mental health as a nation is critical, it is essential that the same effort is put into promoting good mental health. The provision of services, networks and positive peer-support for young people is vital.
The time is now, for those of us who can to step forward and give a message of hope to those who are without hope or are afraid.
If elected I would
Put the person first:
Mental illness does not define who a person is, just as a job does not define who a person is. It does however, influence our perceptions of ourselves and the perceptions of others. If elected President I would strive to break the paralysis of negativity, put positivity at the heart of everything I would do and the individual – as bound to the community – first. Those who suffer from mental illness, their families, support volunteers and staff are the unsung heroes in our communities. Each and every one must be celebrated for what they give every day.
Continue to support the IASE:
As Patron of the Irish Association for Supported Employment I would like to continue this work. The IASE works to support those with mental and physical difficulties to access work and training and provides employers with the information and support to employ those with mental and physical disabilities. Everyone has a contribution to make and it is up to all of us to support those who need it. Our diversity can only make our communities and society stronger.
Recognise the importance of peer-support for young people:
We speak a lot about de-stigmatising mental health, I feel solidifying peer-support networks brings us one step closer to making this a reality once and for all. I have seen very clearly the importance of peer support for younger people in community groups, youth groups and sports teams. I set up my local branch of Foróige in 1979 in Ballyhaise because there were no youth services for young people. I have had a continuing association with Foróige and the positive peer support that they provide for young people has an incredible effect. This is essential for young people to allow their self-confidence to grow and find themselves in a safe and inclusive environment. It is about giving someone back their sense of belonging.
Continue to address rural isolation for older people:
When I visited Clare last month I went to St. James’ Doora GAA club where I helped to launch the GAA Social Initiative in the area which will seek to encourage new members but also focus on older men in the community who might feel isolated, particularly if they live alone. This Initiative was started by President McAleese and I want to ensure that it is continued and championed is wonderful practical response to ensuring that older people stay engaged in their community. Likewise in Dublin I had the chance to meet with the Friends of the Elderly organisation in Dublin’s inner-city. This is a volunteer organisation that again plays a pivotal role becoming the unifying force – the link between an elderly person and the activities of the organisation and the wider community. Our history is continuous in our present, everyone has a role to play and something to give.
Support unemployed groups:
Unemployment is not just an economic tragedy – it is a social and personal tragedy. I was unemployed twice and I understand the toil it can take, unemployment has a huge impact on a person’s self-belief and self-confidence making people more vulnerable to mental health issues. For the past number of years I have advised and mentored groups of unemployed people. Recently I met with members of the ‘IE Network’ in Tallaght Stadium, their experience and ethos has stayed with me. The IE Network is empowering individuals, high skilled individuals and professionals who are now unemployed to come together to create a community of support. The support they are giving to each other will help to spurn themselves, each other and their ideas and enterprises. I would like to continue to support these groups because they provide networks, not just only of practical support but also emotional and mental strength.
Celebrate the role of those working in substance abuse:
I wrote the first Government policy paper on Alcohol Abuse when I worked for the National Youth Council in the late 1980s. The problems then are the same now, if not more obvious than ever, even if there is more recognition of the impact of substance abuse on the individual, their family and society. Those who work in this area need to have their contribution recognised as they work with those who are at their most vulnerable. The impact substance abuse can have directly on one mental health must be communicated freely and without stigma through the means of education and health professionals.
Provide time for advocacy groups:
One of the most important things that I could do is keep in close contact with advocacy groups and provide time for them and see what they need from their President. I would like to support events and annual days, such as World Suicide Prevention Day and highlight the issues. People are afraid of – and afraid of discussing – mental illness, we need to remove this fear and open the conversation. Education is the door to eliminating fear through understanding.
Community is the building block for our society. Up and down the country I have witnessed first-hand the important work that organisations are doing day in day out like the GAA, Foróige, Community Games, Age Action, Tidy Towns and so many more that add a value that cannot simply be measured in euros and cents.
Encouraging people to get involved in their community, involving them in positive networks and providing support when they are vulnerable is essential part to maintaining and supporting a good mental health attitude.
We are a creative and kind people, the ability is there – innovative approaches to mental health promotion such as Headstrong’s Jigsaw projects and Reachout.com’s use of new media play an important role in ensuring that discussing mental health is normalised and that young people know where to access support if and when the need it.
As President I can highlight these issues in a way that Government departments cannot, giving a positive voice to the issues and how we can work together to overcome them.