I extend my sincere gratitude for the opportunity to address the Joint Committee on Health and Children on a subject about which I am profoundly and unreservedly passionate: the mental and emotional well-being of the youth of this country and how we can work together to build a more supportive and sustainable future for our children and teenagers. My passion is built on personal experience whereby, as a teenager, I simply did not have the capacity to cope with an utterly dominant anxiety disorder that seemed hell-bent on robbing me of my character and personality at every available opportunity. Crippling insomnia, harrowing panic attacks and incomprehensible self-harm dictated my life, all disguised behind a mask of normality that polarised the general lazy stereotype or label we associate with those who have a mental health illness - the quiet guy in the corner who has no friends, the guy who keeps himself to himself. I was none of these things but I continually failed to comprehend why I could not breathe some nights or why my chest constantly felt as if a cavity block had been placed upon it, while perpetual and ruthless nausea became an all too common part of my life.
Some days I would sit in my classroom on the verge of fainting as I hyperventilated and fought for air while my teachers continued to teach the class, oblivious to the fact that one of their students was in the midst of a living nightmare. I spent so many of my school days praying that some of our teachers would talk about this or just say something so I did not feel so isolated and terrified. They never did. My greatest support and emotional scaffolding was the fact that I came from a loving, stable and caring family and I used to think what would have happened if I did not have this. I did not really want to contemplate that.
Over many years, my anxiety disorder manipulated and sabotaged many careers and relationships, as it tends to do, but I count myself lucky that I always had that inner resilience to defy its grasp. After many years of hostility and conflict with my mind, I have learned to control, respect and even strengthen its capacity to cope. I have done this through dedication and sacrifice and a complete desire to regain control over an illness that could have been limited or, perhaps, prevented if I received effective and required education and knowledge around what it actually was. It was allowed to grow into a monster - a monster that fed on silence, fear and lack of understanding.
Why am I addressing this committee? The reality is that our youth, the future of this country, need urgent help. They are exposed to too much, so much is expected of them and both the external and internal pressures they are being asked to cope with are simply not viable. The result is the great epidemic of their generation - agonising suicide rates, disturbingly high anxiety and depression rates, self-harm, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, OCD, and so on. We simply cannot ignore this anymore. We have to be honest and ask ourselves if we are truly are doing enough.
It is a transitional period in this country regarding the dialogue around mental health and emotional well-being. The draconian stigma that has ravaged families throughout Ireland for generations is slowly eroding. The mass media is engaging with the conversation while handfuls of schools and organisations are carrying the message to a wider audience and, no doubt, saving countless lives while doing so. We have gradually commenced normalising the conversation around mental health and this must be promoted, nurtured and celebrated at every level. However, I wish I could stand up here and suggest that it is an entirely positive situation. I am not one for blurting out statistics because I feel they often lack substance and do not tend to be evident in the stories I see every day on my website, alustforlife.com,or from the countless schools and workplaces that I have addressed and the thousands of people who have e-mailed me in the past few months in regard to their mental health challenges.
In order for us to progress in this regard, everyone in this room has to be painfully honest with each other and accept that our mental health services and systems are not even close to being adequate or sufficiently well-resourced for the demands and requirements placed upon them. The people within the mental health services do Trojan work with the resources available to them but, unfortunately, their hands are tied in too many instances.
This is not a blame game or head hunt. In order for us to build an effective long-term strategy, we have to park the egos, politics and economics and put people first. We have some incredibly gifted people in this country when it comes to education, mental health and psychology. I believe it is a matter of joining the dots, empowering and building something together that can give our youth the support they require to survive in this often chaotic world. I have witnessed first-hand some of the powerful work schools, students, charity and awareness organisations are doing throughout the country with little or no resources. It is so uplifting to observe but the reality is not systematic and certainly not across the board. Politicians are paid by the taxpayer to cater for the needs of the people and in this regard a lot of work is required.
I have heard horror stories regarding the child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, that are almost too distressing to share on this platform. Families have been left feeing totally helpless while some families have to drive hundreds of miles and wait months to see a health care professional. What if this happened to children of politicians? I hope members can see how utterly unacceptable this situation is.
I am not a health care professional but I do not think one needs to be to see the gaping holes in logic when it comes to the strategy around mental health. We all want to achieve the same thing, so whatever solution is reached, it will be done together. I will outline two options that I would like us to explore. First, we must address primary preventative measures that will allow people to deal with their mental health issues at an infancy stage and build mental fitness and resilience. Second, we should educate teachers and students in recognising how the mind, although it can be weakened, can also be strengthened. How can this be done? Rather than rely too much on medical models, we should create easy access to talk therapies and counselling services at a community level. The idea of a teenager having to be driven halfway across the country having waited two months for a referral is completely unacceptable. A two-tier system when it comes to mental health simply does not work. Access should be immediate and without charge for every child and teenager in this country. Help in many cases cannot wait. It should not be left to voluntary organisations and charities to provide help, but up to now they have provided the biggest support structure to families. We must reach out to the communities that have been torn apart by suicide and provide support to rebuild the communities by improving both individual and collective resilience by effective and focused mental health education programmes. Some of these points have also been echoed in recommendations made by the Children's Mental Health Coalition in its report which was chaired by the Mental Health Reform organisation. The report outlined how youth services can be improved across Ireland.
Let us explore the best solutions for incorporating mental health and well-being into the education curriculum. Programmes on positive psychology, mindfulness and stress management have substantial evidence and research that illustrates their benefit to the well-being of teachers and students. They can also facilitate and improve learning. All that begs the following question. Why are we not rolling out such programmes? The answer is complex. As a nation we have never shied away from progressive and brave social enterprises. Once the will and vision exists, rolling out such programmes can be done but it requires leadership and the empowerment of educators and students. It also involves a much more integrated approach to be adopted by the Department of Health and the Department of Education and Skills. Such an initiative would further facilitate the development of relationships between health care professionals and educators.
We must recognise how the youth communicate and interact. We must build a sustainable, safe and engaging educational online platform that will complement and support the education system. This option would be challenging but it must be explored. Ireland is the technological capital of Europe, so access to expertise surely would not be an obstacle.
We must increase funding and support provided to the charities and awareness-raising organisations that have long been the backbone of emotional support for the families and individuals affected by mental health illness and suicide. These organisations are well-respected and have a willing and engaged audience that trust and rely on their services. Long before people like me had conversations like this with an Oireachtas committee they have provided support to families and communities throughout Ireland. They have a unique connection with many people but often struggle for resources, especially over recent years. Let us remember that the recession was far more than an economic recession; it was a human recession. By that I mean many families and individuals went through some incredibly dark days, and in many cases it was these organisations that held these people up when everything else tried to knock them down.
We also have to address the mental health system when it comes to secondary issues and more serious mental health situations. Over recent months I have received a massive number of communications from families of loved ones attempting to access mental health services, and I would not do them justice if I said it made for pretty reading. I understand this conversation is highly complicated and sensitive but it is one that we must have. This month I received the deeply upsetting news that a young man called Caoilte, who was a family member of a friend of mine, was found dead in the River Liffey. He took his own life after enduring years of unexplainable pain. His family tried to access help many times but they were refused because the young man was consuming alcohol. He was told he could not be helped because of his drinking which was intrinsically linked to his mental health illness. In a country that celebrates and promotes alcohol through its culture, it is simply unacceptable that someone is refused help on account of alcohol. His family were even advised to take a barring order out against him which without doubt would have been broken and would have resulted in criminalising this young man for being mentally unwell. Taking out a barring order is hardly something a mother would want to do to her vulnerable child.
Caoilte's situation was complex and seemed highly subjective to the family involved. Upon posting his story on my website, it became immediately evident that his story was not uncommon throughout Ireland. Mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers all explained similar, painful and heart-rending stories. The details of his story are slowly going to emerge over the coming months. His family do not want to play the blame game or point fingers and simply want change. They do not want to see another family endure what they have endured and will no doubt have to endure for the rest of their lives. No mother should ever feel this helpless and people deserve so much more help. Caoilte, who was an intelligent and witty young man, deserved so much more. He was anyone's brother. We need to ask hard questions because his story is too common. So many people wanted to help this young man but their hands were tied by bureaucracy, vague legalities and a lack of resources. They should never have been put in that position in the first place.
There is no quick fix, but to make progress, we must first accept that change is needed. In some cases Irish people have shown themselves to be revolutionary when it comes to social innovation and I hope we continue to be. We have proven on countless occasions that negative cultural attitudes can be transformed. Although we are sometimes cautious of change, we never let it dictate our collective actions. We have a unique character and personality and punch well above our weight internationally. We can become world leaders when it comes to mental health strategies, so let us work on it together. This is only the start of a conversation. It is important that the next health committee prioritises mental health for young people as a key aspect of its future work programme. I appeal to all politicians to use their full influence, passion and desire to work together and tackle the issues we face, thus helping to build a more resilient society and a new Ireland.