To set the scene for this article let me first provide an introduction to myself. My name is Gowain Reid Patrick McKenna and I am an academic, writer, community activist and republican socialist. I am also a long term sufferer of mental illness, but thankfully my conditions are for the most part well managed and in remission. I am no longer ashamed of my struggles and I have many friends, comrades and family members to thank for helping me on my journey. But this article is not about me, this is about the failure of the state, and the onus republicans and loyalists have to address what is a mental health and suicide epidemic in uncertain times. We have a collective responsibility to rise up and let it be heard that this is unacceptable. So let me set the scene.
Since the inception of the Good Friday Agreement, 22 years ago, more people have died from suicide than all the fatalities spanning the 29 years of what was known as ‘The Troubles’ in the North of Ireland. The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) produces statistical data on suicide deaths. Indeed in the 18 years spanning 2000 and 2018 a total number of 4,783 deaths were registered as suicide in the North of Ireland. In contrast, the total number of deaths registered as a direct result of the conflict spanning 29 years is recorded at 3532, although some sources vary on this it is within the region of 3500. This is telling in so far that during a time when bombs and shootings were commonplace, and over a longer period, there were less deaths than in a time of so called peace facilitated by the Good Friday Agreement and Stormont. It is clear that Stormont and its Executive has failed lamentably, and continues to do so, and worse still perhaps unbeknownst to themselves.
Obviously it would be extremely ‘black and white’ of me to point the finger of blame at the Good Friday Agreement alone. For the cause for this worrying trend is in no way deterministic and is therefore complex in nature. But the current government infrastructure and the subsets thereof (policing, health care, education, social security etc.) have a lot to answer for, especially in terms of financial expenditure and resources. Too much time has and continues to be wasted on ‘the past’ as well as unhelpful rhetoric which reinforces duality (us versus them).
This has to stop. The exact same social issues and pressures are being faced by people on ‘both sides of the proverbial fence’ - we are not so different yet our educational system makes us believe otherwise. For example: Where is the education in schools on the role Protestants played in the formation of Irish Republicanism in the late 18th Century? Where is the education in schools on the role Catholic’s played in the Monaghan Militia in the torture and murder of United Irishmen? Why isn’t William Orr taught in schools across the country? Such a founding Presbyterian revolutionary would surely eradicate the ‘us and them’ mentality that appears to be on the rise for our young people today. This is just one facet of a myriad of profound problems faced by our society today, and worse still all such things can be addressed if we had unity and direction and a cohesive and well-funded committee dedicated to alleviating these issues, step by step.
Although the root cause of the suicide and mental health epidemic is highly complex in nature, a war continues, albeit the map is no longer the territory and the battlefield has changed. The majority of suicides are from young men in working class areas. The figures continue to rise year on year both in the North and in the South of Ireland, yet mass media has swept such pressing matters under the proverbial rug and dares not bring attention to what is a tragedy of epidemic proportions.
Over the last week there have been rumours of 30 plus suicides in rural areas in the West of Ireland, also relating to the impact of COVID-19 regulations. The Irish Health Service (HSE) denies this, and perhaps they are right to do so, but there can be no doubt that some residual effects have played a part. I have spoken to a lot of local people on my travels who are convinced that there is an underlying and malicious agenda at play behind inordinate COVID-19 regulations, local rural economies have been devastated and cancer treatment and A&E departments have effectively been shut down. There are no resources for mental health and elderly people are being held prisoner in their own homes by what can best be described as fear mongering on a massive scale.
The question we must ask ourselves is whether Covid-19 remains a health issue or has it been hijacked for some underlying agenda of control and behavioural modification. Although extremely hard to gauge, what I want to see, and others like me, is the number of deaths caused by the impact of lockdown, the shutting down of the health service along with inadequate furlough and benefit schemes during a time of crisis, manufactured or not.
So how can we as a collective fight this battle? As a republican socialist I believe in a complete revolutionary overthrow of the current system in all it’s forms, the subsets thereof, and in the emancipation of the working class. It is telling the majority of suicides are in rural or working class urban areas where jobs are few and resources scarce. If true republicanism is to flourish, it can no longer put its head in the sand and adopt the ‘hard man’ approach. This is unhelpful. There is nothing ‘hard’ about being unable to express ones feelings and face reality amidst a ‘murder machine’ facilitated by the state, north and south.
To conclude, we must fight this as if we were fighting a war, collectively alongside the loyalist and unionist community who suffer on an equal basis. It is time for every political group to have dedicated mental health training and mental health officers, for their own members and the community they represent. In addition an understanding of stigmatised disorders that go beyond ‘depression’ such as personality disorders is paramount. The evidence shows that in approximately 60 percent of cases, depression and anxiety are reactive symptoms to underlying personality disorders and trauma, that are not understood and horribly stigmatised. People will forgive you for falling and breaking your leg, but they won’t forgive or see past behaviours they cannot understand.
I hope this provides food for thought to all readers from all backgrounds and walks of life. To quote Cicero: ‘where there is life there is hope.’