Excuses, Excuses?

In the first of our SU referendum pieces, Alice Kinsella argues in favour of the impeachment of Students’ Union president Tom Lenihan.

Symptoms for depression: Fatigue, low mood, suicidal thoughts, a tendency to act immorally. Can you pick the odd one out?

On the 15th of October a decision was reached at SU council to bring the motion to impeach our SU president to referendum. A democratically elected leader, this is not an action to be taken lightly or without great consideration.

There has been much disarray in the student body after the controversy surrounding Tom Lenihan’s cheating scandal last May. It is undeniable that we are all entitled to mess up occasionally, goodness knows there’s rarely a week that I go without messing up in one way or another. But this isn’t about the mess up, this is about how it was dealt with and the responsibility of a man in a leadership role to those he’s representing. Sadly this is no ordinary situation. Lenihan is no ordinary student. He is the president of the student’s union and therefore a representative for the entire student body.

Much of the controversy surrounding the scandal is because of Lenihan coming out to say he suffers from mental illness to provide “context” for the alleged cheating.

This has left many people feeling confused. Can we still be angry? Should we be angry? Should he have to step down anyway? Mental health is a difficult thing to address and understand and when it is tied in with what is undeniably an immoral action it makes it even more complicated.

As someone who has suffered from mental illness, and been open about it, my initial reaction was empathy and sympathy. Then I realised that by using mental illness as a blanket excuse for behaviour we may regret we are perpetuating unhealthy stereotypes of the mentally ill.

Lenihan, in a statement released shortly after his cheating was discovered, claims to take full responsibility for his actions. He reiterated at SU council on October 15th that Depression was “no excuse”.

It is questionable then, why he chose to associate his mental illness with the cheating scandal in his statement.

Lenihan has been praised for his openness about mental health, and in most circumstances I would agree, a man in a position of power being open about mental illness should do wonders for mental health awareness and represent a significant stride forward in our times.

Unfortunately the issue was raised in association with the scandal of cheating in his exams during a time when there was much doubt about his suitability to be SU president. While claiming to take responsibility for his actions, and to not be using mental illness as an excuse it is proving difficult to separate one from the other, he has tied the two together so tightly. In providing “context” for his cheating in mental illness it appears he is trying to argue that it is the illness that drove him to such actions.

This is a dangerous and irresponsible association to make. It is bigger than Tom Lenihan, bigger than the SU, bigger than Trinity College. This is generating potential for stigma that could be undoing the work of those who have been fighting stigma their entire lives.

By bringing mental illness to this particular table it suggests that being depressed makes you dishonest. Being depressed does not force somebody to lie or cheat. And it certainly does not stop someone from making honourable decisions.

Its presence in the debate is perpetuating the idea that those with mental illness should not only be treated differently, but should also be excused the responsibility of their actions. These are the kind of untrue and dangerous prejudices that help build and maintain popular misconceptions that have contributed to the stigmatisation of people with mental health problems.

The cheating alone has been enough of a reason to feel uncomfortable trusting Lenihan with this position of authority. Doing something wrong when in a position of trust reflects not just badly on the individual, but on the position you hold. The association of the issue with the SU and its president has belittled the integrity of both the Union and the University.

It has been argued that to impeach Tom Lenihan would send a message to those suffering from mental illness that we do not trust them to hold positions of authority. I disagree. I think to impeach Tom Lenihan because of what he did wrong, and how it represents the SU regardless of his mental illness would send out a message that we understand mental illness. We understand its hardships, but we also understand that those with mental illness are still people, who are capable of running a students’ union, and also capable of taking responsibility for their actions.

Read the anti-impeachment piece here: http://trinitynews.ie//su-impeachment-no