Mary Davis – Mental Health Plan
I want to be a practical President. At the launch of my election campaign a few weeks ago I set out a work programme, including what I intend to achieve within the first 100 days of my Presidency. I want to take the same approach to the issue of mental health: a series of concrete actions that take advantage of the unique position of the President in Irish society, and the President’s capacity to highlight issues, challenge public perceptions, and focus attention on changes we need to make to improve our country.
The most powerful role the President can play in this area is to challenge the stigma that still attaches to mental health issues.
Stigma prevents people getting help, and as such has a direct and negative impact on the prevalence of mental illness in Ireland. If as President I can achieve a shift in the attitudes of Irish people to their own mental well-being, and the mental health of others, then I know I will have made a real contribution to tackling this issue.
People sometimes forget that 30 years ago enormous stigma still attached to people with intellectual disabilities. It was something that most people would rather not think about. I believe that we have gone a long way towards erasing that stigma, and I think the same is possible when it comes to mental health.
This year Mary McAleese convened a forum at Áras an Uachtaráin on “working together for positive youth mental health”. This initiative shows that the key role the President can take to help focus attention on important social issues.
I will build on this initiative and take the idea further by holding regional conventions in different parts of Ireland, to lend my voice – as President of Ireland- to some of the most disenfranchised people in our society. As I stated at the launch of my campaign, the first of these will be held within the first 100 days of my Presidency.
One of the first of these conventions would be for people dealing with mental health issues, including people who use the State’s mental health services, people advocating for the rights of people with mental health issues, and people who have been at risk of suicide.
These conventions will serve to challenge public perceptions, help people with mental health problems to find their voice to advocate for their own rights, and promote greater understanding of issues faced by such people.
I believe these conventions can also complement initiatives such as the local “wellness workshops” which are being planned by the group “Suicide or Survive” to bring discussion of mental health issues to a community level.
In the weeks after I announced my intention to stand for the Presidency, I sought to establish a network of leaders in the areas of youth empowerment, active citizenship and mental health to advise me on what the President could do to break down walls of discrimination and the destructive stigma that is still attached to mental illness in Irish society.
As President, I would maintain and develop this network. It is essential to recognise and tap into the work that mental health organisations are currently doing to create real change and progressive reform.
Maintaining the pressure for change
As President I would highlight the fact that we have a very good national policy statement in A Vision for Change, but that implementation of this policy has been slow. We know we need to transform the way we deal with mental health, we have the plan to achieve this transformation, now we need the courage to put this plan into action.
The role of the President is obviously subject to a number of restrictions, and the President must work closely with the Government. However I believe it is appropriate for the President to highlight to the Government the need to implement its own policy in this area.
Giving visibility to service users
The President can help users of mental health services to gain greater visibility and start advocating for their own needs. People need to be given the confidence to trust in their own assessment of what they need, and to communicate this clearly to professionals and service providers. I would like to give my support to service users and encourage them to trust their own expertise when it comes to their mental well-being.
Emphasising the community dimension
The President spends a great deal of time visiting communities around Ireland, and I would like to use these opportunities to encourage communities to realise their own role in dealing with mental health. I would highlight what can be done by communities to support people with mental health issues in their own locality, how to advocate for a community-based resources to deal with mental illness, and how to challenge the myths that surround mental health problems.
Encourage people to talk about mental health
The President has the power to influence the national conversation. I believe that as President I can get people talking about mental health, their own and that of others. I would like to encourage parents to talk to their children about mental health. Children from a young age are taught about how to look after their teeth and other aspects of their own health and well-being – mental health should be no different.
Highlight the issue of mental health in people with intellectual and physical disability.
People with intellectual or physical disability need as much care for their mental well-being as anybody else, and yet from my work with people with disability I’m aware of the lack of medical professionals who are properly trained to deal with this aspect of mental health. As President I would highlight the needs of people with disability when it comes to mental health and draw attention to this often overlooked issue.