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Ireland needs to get serious about mental health - Kate Fitzgerald and Gary Speed's untimely death starts conversations

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Irish Examiner's artwork attempting to highlight this major issue in Ireland
At the tail end of last week I found myself struck dumb by two tragic deaths. On Saturday afternoon I read a touching tribute on the Irish Times website to Kate Fitzgerald, the 25-year-old who had helped make the Irish branch of the Democrats Abroad a formidable force in recent times.

And then, the following day, I heard of the passing of Gary Speed, a 42-year-old veteran Premier League footballer and manager of the Welsh International team. Both committed suicide.

It’s horrible enough when young people die, not least when those young people publicly embodied such admirable qualities as did Kate and Gary. But for them to take their own lives adds a whole other terrible dimension to the sadness.

The most heartbreaking thing of all is how suicide confounds conventional logic. “Why?” is a question the answer of which will always be out of reach. Both these people had so much to live for; Kate was a rising star in a number of fields, while Gary had a wife, two kids, a glittering playing career behind him and a promising management career ahead of him. On the face of it, there couldn’t possibly be a problem. But that’s not where problems lie.
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And that is why we have to get serious about mental health. Really, really serious. We’ve made great strides admittedly from the days where victims of suicide couldn’t even be buried on consecrated ground, but we still haven’t gone far enough. We still think of mental ill-health when we hear the phrase mental health. Stigma still exists, embarrassment still looms large, we’re only too happy to internalise. People who are suffering with mental health issues often want to spare their friends and family an awkward conversation or generally bothering them.

We’re still not talking enough, not nearly enough, about mental health.

A couple of months ago I was facilitating a workshop for the Donegal Youth Council at their AGM, the topic of which was mental health. One thing I found interesting was that while everyone was in favour of better services for people struggling with depression or anxiety, the number went down dramatically when I asked how many would avail of those same services.

To get to where we need to be with mental health, we need to do two vital things: we need first to get friends talking to friends about this subject comfortably. And when we’ve cracked that, hopefully people who need further help can avail of it with all the level of shame and stigma as going to buy a carton of milk.

But until then, we need to be open. We need to accept that this isn’t "Other People’s Problem". We need to accept that this can happen to anyone and that it’s as treatable as a physical ailment.

We need to look out for everyone, even the ones who seem the strongest of will or the life and soul of the party. They may the ones putting on the bravest face. We need to be subject to one another. We need to keep talking about this.

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