“We need to talk about depression” is a sentiment that arises quite frequently in our popular discourse, normally precipitated by a high-profile suicide, and is evidence that the notion persists that talking as such might be a sufficient societal analgesic to an illness of near epidemic proportions in our country. What it ignores, however, is that we already do plenty of talking about depression.
In the past few weeks, we have had TDs, broadcasters and representatives of certain lobby groups arguing that women might fake depression in order to avail of abortion, should legislation permit it on mental health grounds. A recent Irish Times editorial urges us to talk about suicide, bemoaning that “[w]e rarely have a complete picture of the factors that lead to a suicide” but maintains that the domain of social media is an inherently inappropriate place for such a conversation. And last year, all of our presidential candidates made mental illness and suicide central issues to their respective campaigns, though none addressed the possibility of necessary structural change beyond “more openness” or “awareness raising”.
Headstrong, the National Centre for Youth Mental Health, published earlier this year the findings of their My World survey , which reads as a savage indictment of our infrastructural means of treating mental illness in young people. Issues with access to services, even following a suicide attempt, are a common thread throughout the report. The greatly increased likelihood of severe depression and suicidal ideation for homosexual or bisexual young people is another clear expression of how societal values―here, homophobia, heteronormativity―permeate the lived experience of its population, and constitute our accepted notions of health in general. Regarding media responses to suicide, it seems narrativisation―that “complete set of factors”―is held in high esteem by commentators, ascribing storified, communicative meaning to an act which is at its core a fundamental rejection of same. And yet, such is humanity’s social nature that an individual, as their suicide, cannot ever be understood in isolation from his or her social surroundings.
Fair to say that talk of depression and suicide is common in Ireland, and maybe even disproportionately so in our media, but it is the nature of these discussions that is harmful, and not a perceived paucity of engagement in general. When suicidal ideation is mentioned regarding abortion and legislation for the X Case, the grotesque, insidious lie that people (in this case, pregnant women) will fake mental illness is inevitably produced in opposition, and often goes entirely unchallenged, as it did on RTÉ’s Frontline on the 26th of November when raised by Patricia Casey of the Iona Institute. Patricia Casey is the consultant psychiatrist of the Mater Hospital. Her views, apparently shared by many, are directly contradictory to those contained in the Samaritans Media Guidelines for reporting suicide and self-harm and serve only to trivialise the lived experiences of persons who have been or continue to be at risk of suicide. Moreover, they actively and explicitly engender a mistrust of people experiencing suicidal ideation. However, the predominance of such ideas, of such ways of seeing depression and suicide, goes to show the extent to which the popular discourse is polluted not by a lack of discussion about these issues, but by the prevalence of stigma and prejudice, things which have their roots in underlying societal power structures.