Delegates at Fórsa’s Health Division conference roundly condemned the paucity of public provision of mental health services in Ireland. The division also called on the Government to invest seriously in State supports for those with mental illnesses.
The union also says it wants health sector employers to “create an environment of meaningful support” for workers who suffer from mental health problems, and says it will seek discussions with health service management with a view to developing policies to remove stigma for workers who experience them.
A series of policy motions at the union’s Health Division conference in Sligo last week also included calls for the HSE to provide suicide prevention training for clerical and administrative staff working in mental health facilities, and for vacancies in health promotion services to be filled.
The union’s Health Division Executive adopted a mental health theme for the conference. A number of expert speakers addressed delegates, who also contributed to specialist workshops on aspects of mental health and the stigma that surrounds mental illness.
Fórsa also published the results of a survey that found almost half of Ireland’s health workers have experienced mental health difficulties. Over 60% of the 1,600-plus health workers who responded to the survey said they would be uncomfortable discussing a mental health issue with their line manager, while over 80% said their employer was doing too little to promote mental health awareness.
Divisional chairperson Martin Walsh gave a brave and moving opening speech, in which he referenced his own former experience of mental health difficulties. “As an individual who has suffered from depression in my not too distant past, I can speak from experience about my journey. I have had days were a reason to breath was a struggle, days where the idea of claiming the in-death benefit from the union sounded like a good idea. I’ve had days were I struggled to put one foot in front of the other, but I did,” he said.
He said the stigma that surrounds mental illness added to the misery of those who suffer from it, and formed a barrier between them and a healthy and happy life. “If surveys were telling us that half our workforce was experiencing influenza, or chronic back pain, or any other physical ailment, I have no doubt that there would be immediate and urgent action from employers and the Government,” he said.
Speaking in support of employer action to tackle the stigma associated with mental illness, Health Division Executive member Michelle Spearman said health workers were afraid to seek help for fear that they would “forever be labelled as the person with mental health difficulties.”
“Colleagues who are experiencing difficulties know that stereotyping and stigmatism can occur in any area of employment. Many feel it’s self-defeating to seek help, or even discuss the issue, as they fear they will suffer discrimination in their careers if they do. We want to work with employers to create a workplace culture where each of us is able to challenge stigma whenever we encounter it,” she said.
Michelle said stigmatism took many forms, including “the unkind word, social exclusion, isolation and a feeling of being devalued.” The Fórsa mental health survey revealed that many feared a negative impact on their career prospects if they were labelled as having had a mental illness.
Over 200 delegates at the conference also pledged to campaign for “serious” state investment in mental health services to the public. Speaking in support of the motion, Jarlath O’Connor, who works in Mayo mental health services, said mental health was the “poor relation in our health system.”
He said psychiatric hospitals and institutions had a hugely damaging impact on those who experienced them. “People who are victims of institutional care have only two pathways in life: they go from psychiatric to geriatric care, or they die. We know that one-in-four people suffer a mental illness. They are the victims of their illness and we need services that support wellbeing with early intervention,” he said.