The news in Ireland these last few days has featured high-profile individuals –men- who have given public accounts of how they suffer from depression.
What struck me about the men who admitted to depression was the way they were celebrated for having started a necessary conversation.
One writer, in Denis O’Brien’s Irish Independent, wrote of a ‘groundswell of relief that men are finally starting to admit all is not well in the world of the Irish male’, and that ‘thanks to a growing men’s movement, it’s increasingly clear that men are starting to talk about their feelings, fears, suffering and frustrations’.
Yesterday I turned on Liveline on the public broadcaster RTE, and heard people talking openly about their depression and saluting the high-profile men who had had the courage to open up. Social media was aflutter with admiration for what the men had done.
Well, maybe it is admirable, and maybe it does take courage to admit that you suffer from depression or other mental illnesses.
But look at the way such individuals are celebrated for their bravery and the degree of media attention given to the personal story whilst the social factors involved in mental illness are ignored. These social factors include government policies deliberately aimed at exacerbating mental torment, which sometimes go under the name of ‘incentives’, and, more pointedly, cuts to mental health funding. To treat the solitary heroic individual as a role model in these circumstances is to ignore the social and political dimensions of these problems.
“You can’t keep a good man down”, read the Irish Independent headline about RTE broadcaster John Murray telling of his depression on returning to his radio show after a long break. Did the subeditor think about the corollary to such a phrase: that if someone becomes mentally ill and stays that way, it may be because they are evil?
Let me tell you what this celebration of men’s openness about their depression reminds me of: The Full Monty. In that film you have a group of unemployed Sheffield steelworkers who wind up performing a striptease in order to regain a sense of self-worth after the humiliation of unemployment. Do you remember the time when Full Monty shows were held up and down the country, in aid of charitable causes (what else)? The film was distributed by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Searchlight pictures.
As a cultural event, what it told people was that the course of economic Progress had its casualties, but that being on the dole and living a precarious existence could even be fun, provided you were prepared to grin and bare it. To get your dignity back, you had to lose it. Only by doing this would your family and friends accept you again.
The wider media context for the public accounts of depression is, in Ireland, a public broadcaster that treats policies of austerity –the protection of profits through cuts to public services and wage deflation and the dismantling of social supports- and bank bailouts as self-evident necessities. (This evening the first item on the news was Dublin’s collapsing hospitals; the second was praise for Ireland from the Troika.) It devotes, in its programming time, a remarkable amount of airtime to the matter of how people can train their minds to adapt to the new reality.
Flourishing author Maureen Gaffney is the example that springs most readily to mind; there is also Tony Bates, who had a Psychology Series on the Marian Finucane show and who frequently appears at public events as the ‘resident psychologist’ for that show. RTE’s afternoon show Drivetime had a regular feature called Mind Time in which the presenter spoke to a clinical psychologist about aspects of personal mental life. An RTE television series titled Not Enough Hours entailed ‘Psychologist and Time Management Expert, Owen Fitzpatrick’ helping families come to terms with the pressures of running a household and holding down a job, or looking for a new job. David Coleman, a clinical psychologist specialising in children, is billed by the RTE’s Tubridy show as ‘Tubridy family psychologist’ is another expert making frequent appearances on both TV and radio. In a blurb for David Coleman’s book, Ryan Tubridy says that ‘For a clear, concise and coherent take on the world of family life, David Coleman is the first man we go to‘. Operation Transformation, a series concerned with weight loss and the consequent transformation of one’s life, uses the services of Dr Eddie Murphy MBA, a Principal Clinical Psychologist with the HSE. He is also a contributor to the Marian Finucane Show, the John Murray Show, and the Ryan Tubridy Show.
… I recalled a survey conducted a couple of years ago, published in the Irish Times, I think, that found that what people surveyed on unemployment lines most wanted to talk about was political solutions to the social and economic crisis in which they found themselves.
Meeting such a demand would entail a process of dialogue, a process of questioning of fundamental assumptions about how society ought to be run. It would entail asking about what things ought to be prioritised and protected. It would involve widespread participation from citizens, and in particular those most affected by the crisis. No such thing has been facilitated by the public broadcaster. On the contrary, its reliance on experts, on expert opinion over public participation, has served to block any such process.
Before I go any further, let me say that I am glad John Murray, one of the men who admitted to depression, is feeling better and think that it is excellent that he enjoyed the support from his employer, RTE, during his recovery. What is more I think that if his admission has helped people open up about their own problems, then that is an unalloyed good thing.
However I cannot help but be struck by the fact that John Murray is a former Progressive Democrat and FF-PD government spokesman. He may also be a perfectly nice and caring person, and his depression may have very little to do with any of his work activities. In his public life, though, he has had both a political commitment and a career in support of the implementation of economic and social policies based on free market economic doctrine, which hinges on the dogmatic conviction that the pursuit of individual self-interest is conducive to the good of the social whole, or, for short, that greed is good.
In broader macroeconomic terms, the doctrine hinges on the conviction –shared by the entire political establishment and more broadly across Ireland’s owning class- that the direct evils of unemployment, exploitation and deprivation will turn out, at some point in the future, to bring indirect and as yet abstract goods.
The implementation of this doctrine has, as the last years have shown, had a destructive effect on Irish society, not only manifest during the crisis in the forms of unemployment; personal financial crises and humiliations;, cuts to public services, including mental health services; but also in the cementing of a cult of the entrepreneur, in which the highest honour that can be bestowed on someone is that they make other people a means to their end, and in the demonisation of public servants as workshy parasites who make the most of their sick leave provisions to live high on the hog. The purpose of this demonisation is the destruction of the power of organised labour, of worker rights, and of any form of collective solidarity.
All such things –and the progressively harsher social climate in which they occur- are important social factors in depression and other mental illnesses. Very rarely, if ever, do they appear in public discussions on the subject. What we have instead are celebrations of the heroic solitary individual who has been to the brink and come back, now ready to open up and bare all.
Foremost among the outlets for opening up about depression is the aforementioned Liveline programme. Ordinary members of the public can speak honestly and often movingly about their experience. While you are listening to it, you often feel a great deal of sympathy and empathy for the people doing the talking. But then: nothing.
Liveline is not a continued dialogue, but a release valve, a means of creating the impression that people do care and mean well on the whole, that it’s a great country, and so on. However, when it comes to politics, Liveline is the first line of defence of Ireland’s electoral absolutism: that whatever the government does, they have a legitimate right to do it and if you don’t like it you can always vote them out and if the country votes in a particular way then that’s that and people get what they deserve, ultimately.
The two things –the opening up and talking about what affects you most deeply, and the hardline electoral absolutism- on the surface of it do not seem related. If so, it is probably because we don’t think about how the political system shapes the way we think about how we relate to other people. What happens in a system where the only form of participation in politics is a vote every four years (and if you don’t like that why aren’t you standing for election yourself?) is that the universal franchise, as Costas Douzinas points out in his recent book on the Greek crisis:
radically individualises the population and then reassembles them through a simple aggregation of votes. This double trans-substantiation of socially embedded people into isolated monads and their subsequent gathering into a ‘sovereign’ people is the great achievement of representative democracy…’we, the people’ are sovereign in the few seconds we spend in the polling booth placing the cross against the candidate’s name. But the miraculous transformations elections carry out do not extend to political life before and after the elections.
‘Isolated monads’. How, precisely, would you expect an isolated monad to avoid depression? So, why would anyone think, aside from the fact that mental health is seriously rationed on the basis of wealth anyway, that Ireland’s political system, and its dominant ideas about politics, are conducive to mental health?
(A couple of asides: the Minister with responsibility for mental health in the previous Irish government also owned a pub.
Today I came across an article in a business magazine that celebrated the drinks company Heineken for its Corporate Social Responsibility work. ‘HEINEKEN: SUPPORTING THE COMMUNITY’, read the headline, then, ‘Heineken Ireland has partnered with the Simon Community to great effect’. The Simon Community is a homeless charity. As a result of Heineken’s work, ‘Cork Simon has now initiated a pilot Alcohol Addiction Aftercare programme for service users’.)