My lunch hid from the grey of a water-logged day, packed away in a transparent Tupperware box, protected only from the cold by a thin green lid. That’s it. Two sandwiches, one concave piece of plastic and a green lid. But as I walked to join protesters outside Leinster House last Thursday – protesters who also oppose the €12 million cut to the HSE’s mental health Budget – there was something I just couldn’t shake off. This something plagued me for the rest of the day, resulted in a number of unproductive study attempts and eventually led me to my keyboard. I didn’t know what to feel as I grappled with my emotions, unable to make sense of the inhumane nature of the thoughts I was experiencing.
And nobody knew it, not one person at this mental health rally could see that I was swinging at shadows in the dark…funny, don’t you think? This wasn’t just something I could tuck away in a Tupperware box with a green, airtight lid. Last Thursday, this something caused a mounting anger, a sense of injustice, a silent demand for answers that gnawed at my psyche and resulted in an absolute restlessness, of which the only form of combat was to write. This something I could not divert my thoughts from was a different kind of box – the ashes to ashes, dust to dust kind that comes with six screws and the slam of finality. This something was not even a something, it was a someone – the late Shane McEntee TD.
On December 21, 2012, after “faceless cowards sent him horrible messages on the website and on text” over budget cuts, the late Mr McEntee took his own life.
The profound and infuriating slap of injustice that struck me Thursday morning was the fact that An Taoiseach Mr Enda Kenny – the head of the Fine Gael party who are inducing the unjust cut of €12m specifically set aside for Mental Health Services in the HSE – gave Mr McEntee’s graveside oration. He spoke of his friend and colleague at his final resting place, of how the diligent minister of state at the Department of Agriculture’s “reward was never the column inches, never the public praise, not even the number one in the ballot box.” The fruits of Mr McEntee’s diligent labours were “a problem solved, a life saved, a future secured.”
Mr Kenny brought his farewell to an emotional close, saying “Goodbye Shane, I shall see you further on up the road.”
But what really shook me was the doubt. Had I really remembered seeing Mr Kenny’s graveside oration on the news? Had this happened? Was I crazy? The claws of disillusionment caused by the possible fit of delusion tightened even further. So I asked a friend.
His eyes narrowed in thought. His head tilted with curiosity.
“Who?” he asked.
I explained further the circumstances of Mr McEntee’s death, Mr Kenny’s touching words and the closed fist he knocked his temple with in an attempt to bring himself back from the rawness of the day.
“Don’t know, can’t remember him,” he replied, shaking his head.
I asked somebody else and received the same response. How could nobody remember? Has society really forgotten this suicide victim? And with suicide being nothing short of absolute devastation, is this really what we do to our friends who fall victim to this silent killer? Apparently, in Mr Kenny’s case, it is.
I am not for one second trying to suggest that the provision of extra services at the time would have saved Mr McEntee’s life. That would not only be unfair to Mr McEntee, his family and friends, it would be wrong of me to do so. Suicide is an extremely sensitive issue and is not something to be speculated about, every suicide that occurs is comprised of any number of circumstances and emotions that are inextricably linked in a web of complexity. Yet, with this said, the reason we are out in numbers fighting these cuts is the belief that by cutting these services, more people will die.
And I am not saying that Mr Kenny holds the entire fault with regard to these cuts, but where is his honour? Where is his loyalty? His integrity? How can a man with any claim of concern for the common good of the nation simply stand by and allow these cuts to happen? I have often seen when someone has been affected by cancer, their family and friends fundraise and fight incessantly for vital services that help their loved ones and so many others.
This is not only the case for cancer patients and their families, but also for loved ones with Alzheimer’s, Cerebral Palsy, mental health conditions, Parkinson’s disease – the list goes on. So how is Mr Kenny not tearing down the walls of Leinster House at even the thought of these mental health cuts? How is he not helping the thousands upon thousands of people who suffer from mental illness in this country every single day? And how, above all, can he forget his friend, a man he seemed to respect?
After the inquest into Mr McEntee’s death, his brother Alan McEntee gave a statement on behalf of the late TD’s family and friends. In it he spoke of how we must look out for one another, saying “if we see a friend in difficulty, take them by the hand and seek help.” The cuts that Mr Kenny’s government are trying to enforce not only remove a large portion of that help, but they sever the hand that offers it. Mr Kenny holds the torch but has cut out the light. He has left the vulnerable in Irish society to fight those elusive shadows alone in the darkness. But we as a people must not go gently into that dark night. The protest went on in spite of the rain; and so must we.
As we chanted for justice, small green ribbons from greenribbon.ie (an organisation devoted to provoking and maintaining a positive nationwide conversation on mental health throughout the month of May) were handed out. We pinned them to our coats and lapels and, as we did, I noticed again the low, stony sky hanging over Dublin.
I thought finally of one thing: that Tupperware box with its green lid. For until we turn the tide on mental health cuts, end the stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness and make constructive strides towards progressive and meaningful service provision within the HSE, then the cost will ultimately come in the form of human lives.
We, the people of Ireland, must unite. We must hold up those ribbons and paint the sky green. Only then can we provide the most vulnerable in society with that green blanket of support – that green lid of safety – and finally combat the inadequate mental health system provided by our government. What we as a society need to do is to push for a mental health system that resembles that Tupperware box with the green lid.
We have to create a safe space for those in suicidal distress and provide that green blanket of support, that system wherein people are educated, distressed families are not turned away from overrun A&Es and where those who seek help are given it in a compassionate and safe environment. Because sometimes the difference between an intervention and the lack thereof – the difference between life and death -really is as thin as a piece of plastic. But within this concave piece of plastic, respite may be found, families may sleep at night and people in suicidal distress may not only be safe, but saved.
You can help achieve this by writing respectfully and firmly to your local TD, or attending their next local office hours, demanding that every hospital – without exception – have the resources to fulfil the needs of those in distress. As outlined in Martha Finnegan’s days-old Irish Times article entitled “I would rather get cancer again than be a patient in the Irish mental health service”, adequate in-patient psychiatric care needs “intensive, specialised nursing…a psychiatrist, psychologist, occupational therapist, physiotherapist, and social worker.” She says “people can recover fully and live normal lives if they get the support and treatment that science has shown to be effective.”
Yet of all the questions I have asked in this piece, there is only one that really needs an answer. Since that Christmas Eve three and a half years ago, the day the kind-hearted Shane McEntee was laid to rest, the HSE’s Mental Health programme has faced gross understaffing, little progressive government action and countless cuts, the latest being the €12m we currently demand be reinstated. The question I would like Mr Kenny to answer is not “where is your integrity?” It isn’t “where is your humanity?” Nor is it “where, at the very least, is the respect for your former friend?”
Simply put, my question is this: Mr Kenny stood by Mr McEntee’s grave and said “for the next 12 days, for the next 12 months and beyond, let these [deceased] feature high up on our national preoccupations to create an Ireland that chooses light over dark, hope over despair, reflection over reaction.” This, we have not seen. What we have seen is a Taoiseach who stands down from a cause for which he should tirelessly, genuinely and unreservedly stand up. He has not fought, he has not advocated against, nor has he tried to stem the cuts that mental health services are continuously bombarded with.
On December 24, 2012, Mr Kenny brokenly said “Shane, I shall see you further on up the road.”
What, Mr Kenny, will you say to him when you do?
Photo by Una Harty