On my way to work this morning, I was listening to a radio station I don’t normally listen to (Cork’s Red FM, I’m normally a 96fm woman after 9am). Amid discussions on government decisions about tax, and extra traffic on the road due to kids being back to school, the conversation turned to the traumatic events which unfolded in Cavan over the weekend, the tragic case of the family who died in a murder-suicide. This case has been all over the media in the last couple of days, with 99% of the focus on the man and his sons, with little on his wife who was also a victim. The media has talked about motivations, about mental illness, about how someone could do such a horrendous thing to the people they are supposed to love most in the world. Reading it, and avoiding any of the more salacious details which the tabloids seem to be reporting with glee, makes my heart hurt.
The case has opened up a conversation about mental health in this country. When people are looking at the motivations behind acts like this, they look to see what trauma the perpetrator may have gone through, to see what signs were missed. I wish that this was the first time Irish society has had this debate; it’s not. This scene has been alarming in how routinely it is almost happening, entire families decimated, communities shocked, weeks go by and we all go back to normal. Nothing changes. In general, Irish society has become a lot more understanding about issues of mental health. We are encouraged to talk. We are encouraged to seek help, to be more honest about what is going on in our heads. We know mental health is not something to be messed with. More and more, we have moved from a society who spoke in hushed whispers about “suffering with nerves” and moving towards events where people come out in their thousands to raise money for suicide prevention programmes, and billboards tell us to mind ourselves.
And then something like this happens, and we wonder what has really changed.
The radio show this morning included texts and emails being read from listeners. Many lamented the sole focus of the media being the gory detail and not the celebration of the lives of the innocents lost. Then one text got read out which made me stop. The listener asked why we are allowing “these people with mental problems to be allowed access to children”. In addition to the father in this case, a vice principal of a primary school, who took the lives of his family before taking his own, the listener mentioned “That Elaine O Hara doing god knows what with Graham Dwyer, and she working in a creche, and a local GAA player who has mental issues and is open about it but is allowed to work with kids”. They said we need to keep our kids safe from these people. THESE PEOPLE.
I am not doubting for a second that we need to keep our kids safe, and in everything we do, we need to assess just how safe they will be. My son is my sun, moon and stars and I’d kill for him in order to keep him safe. However, that doesn’t mean that I think he needs to never be around people who suffer with mental health issues. For one thing, that would have me out of his life.
It is dangerous to tar all people with mental health with the one brush. It is dangerous to make wide-reaching comments which declare all people who suffer with a particular ailment to be unsafe. I would have hoped that such rhetoric would have been considered old fashioned, but the same points keep coming up again and again.
There is more than one type of mental illness. There is many more levels of severity, even within types of mental illness. And even with those with the same level of severity, and the same diagnosis, there are different treatment plans, and different levels of effectiveness of these treatment plans. There are those who live perfectly healthy happy lives because they regulate their mental health, are under a closely watched care plan with medical professionals and practice good self care. There are those genetically predisposed to milder bouts of illness. And then there are others who can’t cope, who don’t seek help, or don’t seek help in time, or don’t receive help, or the help that they need.
Painting the picture of mental illness in this country as being something to be feared because of dramatic cases like this is not fair or correct. Yes, I have a bias in this argument. I am a parent who suffers with depression, anxiety and am recovering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I have written a lot about my journey through post natal depression, the things that helped and the lows I have had. Every day I take my medication, I check in with my doctors on a regular basis, I TRY to practice self care when I can. I consider myself, for the most part, on top of things. Then I have busier weeks and I realise I’m less on top of things, but thankfully, I have the presence of mind to realise this and to seek help before I spiral downward. My mental health has not, as of yet, impacted my parenting of my child. It may have caused me to snap, or shout, but I have always found the point where I need to walk away and compose myself before continuing with the child. I spend hours wondering if I could be a much better parent without depression and anxiety, if I was more patient, if I woke up every morning without fail happy with life. My mental illness does not, at this point of my life, make me a danger to my child, or any other child.
This is the case for the vast majority of people who are dealing with mental illnesses of different strengths and varieties in this country. Therefore to state that those who have mental health issues should be faced with a blanket ban from working with kids, to protect our children, is grossly over the line. While child protection is of course a key issue for us to consider in all hiring procedures, for volunteer and paid work, we must not use a generalisation which is not based on fact to allow our judgement to be clouded. We are already in a situation in this country where disclosure of mental health difficulties to employers is considered a not-done thing. It is assumed that employers will view such employees as a liability, and be less likely to hire them – finding another reason to do so, of course, as to not face a legal battle under employment law. Statements like this being made and focus being placed on mental illness in employment will be damaging.
We should be looking at the individual, not the majority. Mental illness on its own does not a mass murder cause. There are other factors which come in – in every case- without which such tragedies could be prevented. The motivations behind this murder-suicide, and those of several other cases over the past few years, aren’t always clear, but to blame it merely on a health status is ignoring the bigger picture. Those with mental illness can live normal lives, healthy, happy, loving lives, with treatment and care. Jealousy, abuse, violent behaviour – if you remove the murder from the picture, these things are never excused by a psychological condition excuse – so those who let it excuse such a brutal crime are missing a key piece of the picture. We don’t know what makes these people kill, and cause so much pain for their families and the wider community. What we do know is that labelling anyone who has ever had psychological difficulties as a ticking time bomb is more likely to create a negative effect than a positive one.
So, if we’re not allowed to ban them from working with our kids, what can we do to protect our kids from potential danger from people under the influence of mental illness? We can increase the treatments available to ensure as many people as possible who need them can avail of the treatment they need from professionals to ensure their mental health remains stable.We can change policy to ensure that family members are informed of negative changes in the patients state – currently this is not the case, leaving many family members unaware of the true state of their loved ones health.We can fund groups like Women’s Aid, who work tirelessly to protect women and families living in abusive circumstances – over half of women who die in Ireland by violence are victims of domestic abuse.We can continue the conversation about mental illness on a wider level to hopefully lower the levels of those who are suffering in silence, in the hopes that this will not happen again.
We cannot go backwards and make these issues something to be whispered about and only spoken about in euphemistic terms. For the victims, for Clodagh, for Liam, for Niall, for Ryan, for all the victims of the last few years of these horrific family killings. We must change the story in the future.