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See Change

This morning, See Change launched its Make A Ripple radio campaign. The campaign sees 22 real people tell (part of) their real stories. These awareness-raising ads were recorded and produced without scripts and without music or intros by the wonderful, generous, inspiring Evelyn McClafferty.

I was honoured when I was asked to be part of the campaign, which aims to raise awareness and smash the stigma surrounding mental ill health in Ireland. I was delighted when I was asked to speak at the launch. This is what I had to say:

“I became involved with this campaign because I believe that the more people speak out about their mental health, the more people will speak out about their mental health.

The stigma attached to mental ill-health allows ill-informed people to continue to say ill-informed, unkind, untrue, unhelpful things about mental ill-health. The only way to exorcise stigma is to educate it out of people. The only way to do that is to challenge it. The only way to do that is to speak out and refuse to be silent. To tell the truth.

My truth is that I have post traumatic stress disorder. I have PTSD because I was sexually abused from the time I was two until I was an adult.  The people who brutalised my body also traumatised my mind. How could they not? Body and mind are two halves of the same whole; they are indivisible and inextricably linked. Yet, discussing physical health is so much more ‘acceptable’ than discussing mental health.

I have a condition – a disorder – that is incurable. There is no cure for PTSD – there is no pill that will take the edge off it. When I was hospitalised two years ago, the consultant psychiatrist I was under told me as much. ‘Medicine can’t help you,’ he told me candidly. ‘We cannot help you here.’

He was right, the best I can do is be grateful for the fact that it’s not as bad as it was. Because, truly, it has been awful. There were days, many days, when my first thought upon waking was ‘Oh no! I’ve woken up again.’ There were days – years, in fact, where I retreated so far inside myself that I wasn’t sure I could ever be found.

PTSD meant I lost the ability to recognise my own instinct – let alone follow it. As you can imagine, that got me into some hairy situations. PTSD has seen me suicidal, believing that I truly was the worst person on the face of the planet; believing that the world, including my children – especially my children – would be better off without me.

PTSD left me terrified of the world and everyone in it. It left me believing the worst of myself. It saw me acting in ways that were not in my own best interests.

My symptoms were compounded by my attempts to conceal them from the world of “normal” people. (Yeah right! Who’s normal? Hands up here, all the normal people!) The relief I found when I stopped doing that was phenomenal. Suddenly, the energy that I’d been spending on concealing how I was, on playing the game, was freed up. I felt lighter – I felt like myself, even though it wasn’t easy. Especially not in the beginning.

It meant staying away from people who fed my negative views of myself., and who had a vested interest in keeping me stuck. It meant being honest when people asked me how I was. I’m not always ‘grand’! Sometimes I’m only ‘okay’. Sometimes I’m pretty low. Sometimes I’m barely hanging on. But I accept that.

My mental health is part of who I am, but it does not define me any more than having green eyes or unfashionably large feet or tattoos define me. I’m not stigmatized because of my eyes, or my feet or even my tattoos. So I no longer accept stigmatization because I have PTSD.

I’m not naive enough to think that my rejection of it will erase stigmatization. It won’t be wiped out at the end of this campaign fortnight. I know it’a a long journey and we’re just setting off. I know that people will still talk. I know people will still be unkind. I know some people will still call me cracked. But that’s okay, because every time someone calls me ‘cracked’, I remember what Groucho Marks had to say on the subject:

‘Blessed are the cracked,’ he said, ‘because they let in the light.’

So I thank God for all the cracked people. Long may we continue to let in the light. Long may we continue to shine.’  “

The stigma attached to mental ill-health can compound the difficulty of the initial problem.  Speak out about mental health, get help for mental illness the same way you would for physical illness. Don’t suffer in silence.

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Our Fat Starving Children

Children in Ireland are bearing the brunt of the economic recession on this island. That is the truth. As the amount in their parents’ wallets shrinks, so too does the level of care Irish children are receiving. And I don’t mean trips to the apartment in Spain, or a weekend away in Disneyland for your birthday. I mean basic things. Like shoes that fit properly. And food.

 

We Irish have a funny relationship with food. We can’t shake off our ‘famine mentality’; which tells us we need to gobble every morsel laid in front of us because if we don’t, we’ll be starving tomorrow and then we’ll be sorry! Before the Celtic Tiger prowled the land (swiping at everything in his path and, ultimately giving us all septicemia) we were told to eat up our dinners and that it was a sin to leave food on our plates.

‘Poor black babies,’ we were told sternly ‘are dying in Africa and there you are, wasting food.’

 

I remember being force-fed to the point of vomiting because I couldn’t stomach what my parents deemed ‘enough’ food. I’m guessing they weren’t too concerned about food and the possibility of forming unhealthy relationships with it.

 

My eye is always drawn to anything in the news related to children, and this week, I have read two pieces which alarm me. In the first, I read of how – because one in five Irish children is obese – children in Ireland will be weighed when they start school. Now, aside altogether from the ritual humiliation of this kind of action, I wonder what the follow-on will be? What will be done with the information that’s collected this way? And, in these belt-tightening times, where will the funding come from? Would money not be better spent promoting healthy eating? Starting with breastfeeding, which has been shown to have a positive impact on obesity in later life (and is free!) ?

 

The second piece which alarmed me was this one. It tells of how five per-cent of  children in Ireland has self-reported going to bed or to school hungry. Now, while I couldn’t help but notice that the statistic is the same for both groups, I don’t for a moment suggest that the 5% that’s going to bed hungry is the same 5% that’s obese. But it’s possible.

 

Obesity, we all know, is caused when there is a huge surplus of energy (in the form of fats and sugars) going in compared with the amount of energy going out (in exercise). The only way to avoid obesity is to either eat less or exercise more – or both.  Avoiding obesity is also connected with avoiding empty calories and eating healthy nutritious food. And guess what? Healthy, nutritious food is more expensive than rubbish food.  And the empty calories – the ones that are all energy with little or no nutritional value – do not keep you feeling ‘full’ for longer.

 

For people on a very low income – for people who are living in poverty – buying  food that is full of nourishment is harder than you might think. A sliced loaf – bread made with good quality ingredients and low sugar and low salt and whole grains – costs €2.25 in a regular supermarket. A sliced loaf – thinly sliced, with very little nutritional value –  in one of the low-cost German supermarkets will set you back a mere ¢75.  Obviously, Mammy On A Budget is going to plump for the latter – because she can’t afford the former. But the cheaper one is a less healthy option.

 

Ditto fresh, organic fruit from the Farmers’ Market. Waaay better for you than the cheap stuff in the supermarkets – which are sprayed on the outside with goodness-knows-what, which does goodness-knows-what to your insides. Poor people have no choice but to buy the cheaper version and feed it to their kids.

 

The poor can’t afford to feed their children properly. The result? Fat, starving children.

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