I thank the representatives of Mental Health Reform for attending the meeting. I will make a number of points and some of them might appear to be contradictory. I congratulate you, Chairman, on your initiative and appointment as Chairman.
I have one reservation and I have had it since the start. When I started my life in professional politics in 1992, I worked for a Minister of State who had been appointed by the then Taoiseach, Mr. Albert Reynolds, as Minister of State with responsibility for women's affairs. It is a dim and distant time that has passed. I do not like the separation of mental health from health and I do not like the idea that we are still establishing a sub-committee so we can ensure it gets dealt with. I look forward to the day when we have a Minister for well-being or something similar that encapsulates the health area and that we automatically assume this area incorporates the mental health area, or that the mental health area incorporates the health area. That ought to be one of the primary objectives. How do we go about removing the gap we always have with the separation of the two? It happens in emergency departments. One must be triaged to ascertain whether one is a mental health patient or one has another emergency, and one is sent a certain way. In fact, sometimes people will want or require a holistic approach, and there have been many developments in that regard.
I practise as a psychotherapist and I worked with businesses. Private secretaries have done a phenomenal amount of work as has the public sector on bolstering employees. I wish to emphasise some of the good things, and I am not doing it because I am a member of a Government party. I believe it is a better way of looking at things. I found the life being sucked out of me in the past ten or 15 minutes, and I mean that in the best way. There is massive investment by employers in employee resilience. Some might say they are just ticking boxes because they have a duty of care to their employees, but others are incredibly enthusiastic about it. I also see that they get a bang for their buck from it. Productivity improves when one looks after employees and one creates incentives for them and are mindful of their well-being. Obviously, the corollary is true as well.
A PricewaterhouseCoopers, PwC, report from Australia and New Zealand seven or eight years ago showed this virtuous circle. The more those countries invested in health, including mental health, the more health premiums reduced because there were fewer claims. That was a large carrot for their finance ministers and health insurers. They knew that, if they invested in mental health, it would result in a reduction in claims and payouts. It was a holistic view of well-being that covered health and mental health.
Deputy Ward and I were councillors on South Dublin County Council. When speaking to constituents, I would see both sides of the story - housing officials behind their desks stressed up to their gills and housing applicants feeling like they had been treated unsympathetically and unempathetically because their circumstances in life had not been taken into account. There should be a whole-of-government approach to issues.
The witnesses have not focused on resilience. The positive story to date has been the enormous resilience of people in the face of the pandemic. The Spanish flu of the late 1910s was followed by the Roaring Twenties when people partied for a decade. It was followed by the greatest depression the world has ever seen, but I can see people finding out in a year or so the ways in which we have all been diminished by the pandemic. I mention resilience because that is the main factor - bouncebackability. It is important to accentuate that, in the teeth of considerable adversity, many human beings find incredible reserves within them that they did not realise they had to face issues. We could hold them up as examples as well. There are positives.
I will make my next comment as a Government representative, although I was not a member of the party in the previous Government. Something the witnesses have missed is that the role of these Governments in the past ten months has been awe-inspiring in terms of the resources they have placed at the disposal of every Department and local authority. They have fulfilled the social contract. There are gaps everywhere, for example, in hospitality, mental health and event management, but the Governments have kept the show on the road and not let the issue of resources get in the way.
We reopened schools because of the recognition that doing so would be fundamental to the mental health of society and the mental health and development of children. I have visited many schools in my constituency in the past month. A tiny, almost negligible minority of children have not returned to school. I accept that there are a number. In most schools I visited, great efforts are being made in the form of home delivery of meals under DEIS 1, in some cases by school principals and vice principals. The mental health committee needs to tap into this recognition of people's situations. It is a narrative that shows the greatness of human beings, their constant regard for one another, their keenness not to forget the kid who cannot come to school because his or her parent has an underlying health condition or because of some other situation, and the system's response to ensure people are not left behind. We should capture the DNA of these actions. They say a great deal about us and I do not want them to be forgotten. I am not making this as a political point. Many people moved heaven and earth, and are still doing so, to make these things happen. We need to recognise that.
When called on, the State responded. There were holes, but the responses of some other countries have been appalling. There is an invisible social contract between the State and the citizen where the latter should be looked after when trouble happens. The State has stood up, but that is not to say that it has got everything right.
I grew up in a generation where people took to bed with their nerves. That was how it was described, but there were many mental health issues in the background. We have moved a long way from that.
I have read and accepted everything the witnesses have submitted. I had a conversation with South Dublin Chamber this morning. The witnesses could not have covered everything at this meeting that was mentioned in their submission, but South Dublin Chamber is concerned about self-employed people and sole traders, entrepreneurs who are busy trying to keep their shows on the road in normal times. Even in recessions, sole traders will try to create new work and consolidate existing work. In the pandemic, however, they have been told they cannot work. The enterprising things they have done to keep their shows on the road are no longer available to them as options. They are not members of the Irish Small and Medium-Sized Enterprise Association, ISME, or the Small Firms Association, SFA. They tend not to be on LinkedIn. They have no connections or networks. South Dublin Chamber has discovered that they are suffering a great deal of stress because reaching out was not part and parcel of their day-to-day activities. We can forget that the self-employed and others involved in enterprise suffer stress, too. They need to be part of the conversation.
Speaking from my professional background, I mentioned in a Dáil contribution that we tended to associate loss with the loss of a loved one. All of the literature shows that loss extends beyond that to, for example, status, health, job, pets or things. The most underestimated response to loss and grief is anger. There is a great deal of anger and pent-up loss, hurt and emotion in society. People are not even aware of why they are angry. There is work to be done on this matter. It is a legitimate, justifiable and perfectly human response to get pissed off when we lose control of our circumstances in life. People can be taken aback by the anger they feel, but it is a natural response and should be included in the holistic approach.
The Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, mentioned something when updating the Dáil on Covid approximately six weeks ago and it could be helpful if the committee drilled down into it. He spoke about the establishment of a county volunteer corps. I was interested in the idea and have submitted a couple of parliamentary questions to find out what it entails. I have never heard of the like in Ireland before. If I have the concept right, it seems to be a corps within counties of people who want to volunteer their help in many different ways. It presents an opportunity in the context of mental health and well-being. It might be helpful if we examined what the Minister had in mind and what contribution we could make to framing the conversation.
During an update on the Covid situation, I made the point that we needed to give people hope and have the State do something for Christmas. As an off-the-cuff remark, I said it would be great if we had a great Christmas light display. I was trying to tap into people's need for a bit of colour in the run up to Christmas. Some people on social media interpreted that as being all I had to offer. I only had two minutes to make the contribution. One individual commented that what would give him them hope would be the reintroduction of a mortgage suspension over the period. We can make many interventions, but the practical one is often the one that makes a difference to people's mental health. If I did not have to pay a bill or if it would stay suspended for a time, I would sleep at night.
I look forward to the committee's work. The role of social media is being mentioned in every conversation.
Many of our younger generation are getting answers or looking for advice on social media and there is some really good stuff there. I often see Bressie's content on Instagram and other really inspiring things but there is also quite destructive content, as we have seen in recent weeks.
I hope this is the start of a conversation about well-being, of which mental health is a really important, equal part. I thank the witnesses for their paper which I read with interest. I look forward to engaging on this.