Helping you get through tough times

Spartan warriors, best friends and the health service

By Derek Chambers

Listening to the inspirational hurler Donal Óg Cusack on Friday I was reminded that the people around us, our friends and family, are all that really matter in life. At a seminar to mark World Mental Health Day, Donal Óg talked about the value of friendship and the importance of the person standing next to you. Over 2,000 years ago, the Greek Spartan warriors would always go into battle with a spear in their right hand and a shield in their left hand – they all held their shields in their left hand to protect the man standing next to them. In Ireland, in the year 2010, the person standing next to you is as important as ever.

On World Mental Health Day, 10 October 2010, it’s important to remind ourselves of a few facts about mental health, mental illness and the support that’s out there. We know from Ron Kessler’s research in the U.S. that most mental health problems begin during teenage years or in our early 20s. So it’s during that sometimes turbulent time of transition into adulthood that we most need support. In Ireland, as in most countries that consider themselves ‘developed’, mental health services are split between child & adolescent services and adult services. This means that slap bang in the middle of the period when we’re most vulnerable, if we have mental health needs that only a mental health professional can meet, the digits on our birth certificate will decide whether we’re seen by a struggling, under resourced child & adolescent service or an inappropriate adult service. Put simply, as our friend Tony Bates from Headstrong put it recently, the system is weakest when the need is greatest.

Our mental health services are poor. Despite the fact that at least one in four of us will experience a serious mental health problem during our life and that suicide is the biggest killer of our young men, the mental health budget accounts for only 5.3% of the total health budget – and it may fall even lower after the next budget. Where does that leave us? We started some focus groups recently around the country and one of the things we ask about is formal and informal support, “where would you go for support with a mental health problem?” When it comes to formal support we don’t seem to have a clue. Apart from Samaritans, and school or college counsellors (which is great if we’re lucky enough to be in school or college and even then it depends on where you are) the people we’ve spoken to don’t seem to know where to go.

There are places to go. GPs will help you get through a tough time. There are good quality, low cost counselling services available out there (see But, most of our mental health problems, most of the tough times we go through, can be made easier by talking to a friend or a family member. This brings us back to the Spartan warriors. If you’re going through a tough time, talk to the people who are nearest to you. If you’re not going through a tough time, look out for the person standing next to you.

For more info on how to look out for people close to you, see the section on help a friend.

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