Above: A still from the Youtube promotional video for the Green Ribbon campaign. Watch it here.
This month sees the roll out of the Green Ribbon campaign, one of them cosmetic marketing pushes that state departments channel millions of euro into in order to create a nationwide perception that your government is being proactive. Sean Finnan says it’s far from enough.
The Green Ribbon Campaign is rolling out over May 2017 and has over 90 Partner Organisations, as much of these campaigns do. ‘See Change: The National Stigma Reduction Partnership’ is the main organiser of the event, and its chief goal, as the name testifies to with its nice double entendre, invites us both to “see change” and on its idiomatic flipside of “sea change”, to be part of a broad transformation.
A broad transformation in what?
Of mental health of course. Telling us to be aware of it. Giving us advice like, “Don’t just talk about mental health: Just be yourself, chat about everyday things as well.” This may be excellent advice but it’s very difficult to articulate any criticism of such programmes without coming across as facetious, or worse, even callous.
To be honest, despite starting this article with the intention of looking at the Green Ribbon Campaign and its worthy goal of breaking down stigmas, it’s hard not to get the feeling that its campaign has the wrong target audience.
Really it’s not the Irish public that has been stigmatising people with mental health problems, it has, since its conception, been the Irish state through the societal discourse it has promoted. A brief flick through countless works of Irish literature highlights the constant trauma, of what Francie Brady in The Butcher Boy calls “the garage”. The “garage”, the austere, grey-walled psychiatric units that overlooked provincial towns, suburbs and city outskirts all around Ireland lurks in the shadows of Irish literature because it lives through the Irish psyche.
The place where you went “to get fixed.”
In Mary Raftery’s documentary, ‘Behind The Walls’, she opens up the film with a statement that shocks one to the quick, because of the very endemicity of the problem: Ireland during the middle decades of the 20th Century had more people than any other country in the world, per capita, in mental hospitals putting even the Soviet Union to shame.
Just what could be wrong with all of them?
What Ireland was struggling with then, as it is increasingly again suffering with now, is what it is permissible to be. Ireland in the middle of the last century was a grim place. Censorship was rampant, akin to throwing salt on the cultural development of the new state, forbidding any new ideas being formulated and practiced upon, in an effort to bolster the catholic church’s authority, an authority based on silence, on denying modernity.
What is so different from the Ireland of then and now is that one would think, that the widening of discourse throughout society, of what one can and cannot be/say/do, mental health would be taken a lot more seriously, would be understood more and be treated seriously.
Still however, there remains one massive gaping flaw in how we address mental health. There exists a refusal still to examine the institutions of the state in their historical context, of how they have defined mental health, of how they perceive those with mental health and lastly how state boards refuse to accept how mental health is as much a political problem is, as creating jobs.
What exactly was wrong then with all these individuals incarcerated in Ireland’s gulags across the land? When a state deems it necessary to incarcerate such a vast swathe of its people in various institutions, we are not dealing with a mental health problem, we are dealing with a political problem.
When such campaigns like the Green Ribbon Campaign are run, with an emphasis on individuals wearing a green ribbon and talking to one another, the State is once again pulling off a massive wink and nod, stating that indeed, finally, mental health is a massive issue in this state while not first looking at itself, at the institutional environment that allows it to flourish.
Yet, what is avoided in this discussion, in this pushing of people toward talking with one another, is a tacit avoidance that it is the institutions of the state that have the ultimate power in navigating this terrain.
The most glaring example of the languid nature of The National Stigma Reduction Partnership was last week when it was revealed that a young woman committed suicide, days after her arrest by An Garda Siochana.
What could have pointed to a definite “sea change” in tackling the stigmatisation of mental illness in Ireland, of a criticism of the utter lack of awareness of the Gardai in dealing with mental illness, by even something as simple as a press release challenging An Garda Siochana for the despicable nature they treated this woman in their care, was instead met with silence.
Or earlier on today, the Galway Advertiser revealed that a teenager who tried to commit suicide, who after being rescued from a drowning attempt was refused admittance to the Emergency Department despite stating her intention to repeat the attempt.
Again, we are here dealing with a lack of institutional care, of those that work within the nexuses of the state not having the resources nor understanding to deal with mental health.
The same article points to a case that occurred a fortnight ago in which “a man with self-inflicted open knife wounds” was told “to go home or join the Darkness Into Light Walk which raised money for a suicide charity”. While in another case “a man enduring a paranoid psychotic episode was left waiting in the Emergency Department for more than four hours without treatment before he left and jumped into the Corrib, taking his own life.”
To think that the state, or even more naively, we as individuals with our green ribbons on can tackle the stigmatisation of mental health is ludicrous. Stigma has always been necessary for the state to invoke its authority and even with all the good will of a National Stigma Reduction Partnership, the stigma will continue to exist because the stigma is necessary for state authority.
And as the above examples highlight, the inadequacy for dealing with mental health and episodes of mental turmoil and distress, is endemic in our institutions. It is pervasive with an unconscious historical stigma. Stigma is only toppled by those that are not afraid to make their voices heard.
Despite having over 90 partner organisations, an organisation that could have quite the lobbying potential, there is naught but silence even as they tell us to wear a green ribbon and talk. It’ll take more than wearing a green ribbon before we see change.