I thank the Chair. I left a voicemail on the phone of the Minister of State explaining my delay. I had a long-standing appointment with the Australian ambassador. One of the first topics we spoke about was mental health from the Australian perspective and the challenges being faced.
No nation is perfect, but Australia has a very good record in terms of strategic interventions in the mental health space and will be long recognised for that. Obviously, it is a completely different country and society.
I wish to respond to a number of things. From my perspective, we can talk as experts about the impact of Covid on our lives as parliamentarians. The Minister of State is still working remotely today. It is nice to be in a committee room again. It is to be hoped we will soon be back to in-person live meetings.
The Minister of State and Chair can identify with my next remark. The impact of Covid came home quite profoundly to me and to most of my colleagues last Thursday and Friday when we had an in-person parliamentary party meeting. I do not want to attract trite media comment about it. It was quite emotional to be able to sit and eat with colleagues. I did not have much of a chance imbibe any alcohol. One of the features of socialising is to be able to gather, have a coffee and physically sit with people. It was only when we were allowed to do that that I realised the loss involved, including the loss of collegiality, in particular for the newly elected who are not so newly elected anymore. It was perhaps their first real opportunity to have a proper parliamentary party gathering. That is in the interests of democracy.
We were unable to meet our constituents to face-to-face for a period of time and had an obligation to protect our staff as parliamentarians. Our inability to host public meetings on important topics is still ongoing. We want to be able to interact with the public in the way we take for granted as public representatives. None of us wants such activities to end. We want to be able to resume all of that because it is such a part of the Irish way of doing politics.
We talk about the changes that have happened. Dr. Harry Barry addressed Fianna Fáil on Friday and I was taken by much of what he said. All of what he says is always very valuable. Covid has had and continues to have an all of society impact. There is not one person whose mental health has not suffered to some degree. He characterised the great challenge facing the country as one of dealing with emotional distress, some of which, I hope, may be low-grade in terms of what I spoke about with regard to my parliamentary colleagues.
Dr. Barry referred to those who have long Covid, and the distress that has caused and the impact it has had. That loss is not just to do with the loss of a loved one; there were multiple losses. I spoke about this before. There were job losses, as well as the loss of loved one ones and health. The national day of commemoration has a big task. The obvious commemoration is a public thing, but art, music and the media have a very important long-term role to play in this.
Throughout Covid I regularly cited a book about the Spanish flu and its impact on Ireland by Dr. Ida Milne. The book refers to the failure of the State to commemorate which meant that in subsequent years my generation had no sense that the Spanish flu had an impact at all in Ireland, whereas we knew about the Civil War, World War I and the War of Independence. Running parallel through that period of revolution was the Spanish flu. We lost all sense of it because we never commemorated it. It was never mentioned. It was put away.
We cannot put Covid away. I do not think there needs to be an annual commemoration, but it is something we need to return to again and again. To paraphrase Dr. Milne, that is necessary to ensure that we do not lose it from our public consciousness and that we carry that sense of it. It is not about funding.
It is also about changing culture. There are some people who are very comfortable and happy when they greet someone to exchange a connection through their fists or elbows rather than shaking hands. Some people do not want to return to shaking hands.
There are people who lead very active lives. We tend to think of older people who simply will not emerge from their homes anymore. There are supports in place in respect of that.
To use the Chair's turn of phrase, everyone has lived experience through Covid; no one has escaped this. It is about developing a consciousness of that because when we all realise we all have suffered, it might be more comforting to those who suffered more acutely than others, in terms of being open and starting a national conversation about it.
I note the Minister of State will meet the Minister, Deputy Foley, her colleague, this afternoon. Something I have felt strongly about, which has probably been reinforced as a result of Covid and its impact on adolescence, is the need for the State to consider a gap year between the leaving certificate and throwing oneself into the college experience, for those who go to college. Notwithstanding the adaptations that were made to the leaving certificate, we have seen the stresses that are on leaving certificate students. We should allow them a space that is not necessarily between leaving certificate and the first year in college - if college is the route that a person chooses - but one which could be in the middle of that experience between the age of 18 and 25 years. The State should put in place things to do for that age group, which could help build our community. While it should not be compulsory, students should be given a choice because they have a big role to play. Other countries do this. I would love to see this available for 18- to 25-year-olds whereby if they need a bit of space, they could exercise their right to a gap year while knowing their place in college is waiting for them, or if they finish their college year but are not ready to go into the world of work yet, having found it very stressful, they could take a structured time out. We should facilitate them in doing that.
The Australian ambassador spoke about how they have a strong programme that emphasises belonging in communities and how they use local authorities. The Minister of State referred to cafés. I love that idea and am excited about it. I commend the Minister of State on that initiative of hers. It would let people know they belong to a certain place, wherever that may be. If a person belongs to that place, all the supports he or she needs could be in that place. All the people who are needed to help support others could also be found in this place, therefore, a person would not have to go elsewhere. We should ensure the architecture of that support i, s provided.
Dr. Harry Barry has spoken about the need for guidance counselling. Our Minister has been to the fore in this regard and our party has been to the fore in this regard in terms of the manifesto and the implementation of the programme for Government. Nevertheless, even Fianna Fáil will admit that we may have underestimated the quantity or proportion of supports that are needed in guidance counselling. Dr. Harry Barry made the point that we need to load the system now. We have reintroduced it and provided many resources and continue to do so. There was a significant emphasis on teenagers and adolescence needing that.
On adolescents in school, everybody has suffered a degree of stress. I refer to the teachers in the schools I visited. They go into school on an elevated stress level compared to going into school on a normal pre-Covid day. There is a wear-and-tear aspect to that. There is much to be said for mental health days. A national mental health day would be very useful.
The final point I will make, which I know is not lost on anybody, is that we are not out of the woods yet. We could relax too easily and I see that happening. I have started handwashing religiously again. We need to be conscious of that. It is not that I let it go but I am making a conscious effort now. We could get dragged back into this pandemic very quickly with the Covid variations.
The Minister of State will have read the Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Mental Health report arising from the private meetings. We will be coming with a report to include the public meetings at some stage as a result of the witnesses we meet in public session. The Chair and members were keen that we met witnesses. We could only meet them in private session. That was very valuable and we reported on that. There is much suffering but there are many resources and good people out there. Some of the Department's officials, including Mr. Seamus Hempenstall, were before the committee previously in terms of issues that have come up. I wish the Minister of State well and commend her on all the work she is doing to come up with initiatives and to support those who have the skills and expertise already.
The Minister of State recognises, and might speak about it, that we have moved into a place where we have not been before. As a result, innovation and innovative policies are required. It is not always about money because money does not solve all things. It is about an awareness that things have changed and trying to adapt to that. I will give one example which I spoke about at a recent mental health private meeting. Everybody assumes, and it has become gospel, that remote working is a good thing. For many people, it is. Forced remote working does not suit everybody no more than forced return to work. It is up to employers. I like the Australian model in which employers take their obligations and responsibilities around the wellness of their employees seriously. It seems they are supported far better structurally than we are in Ireland. We are only beginning our journey. For a decade, Australia has been doing very well on that journey. It has also recognised, which I knew from previous work, that the more one invests in mental health, the more one saves the taxpayer on tax bills generally. The private sector has been a leader in that.
I apologise to the Minister of State for my lateness in attending. I am glad to be here. I commend her on the work she has done. I thank her for giving so much of her time to the committee today. I look forward to further engagement with her, particularly when the public dimension of our witness reports is published and we will have another meeting about that.