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Activist for mental health passed away

Derek Chambers, our Director for Policy and Programmes pays tribute to John McCarthy after hearing of his death.

It was very sad to hear about yesterday’s passing of John McCarthy, founder of Mad Pride Ireland and passionate mental health activist.

The soap box

The first time I encountered John, he pretty much hijacked a meeting on the prevention of suicide in Ireland. The meeting Chair asked him to get off his “soap box” and row in behind everyone else. From my observation over the following years John never did get off that soap box.

I contacted John to see if we could meet up for a chat about mental health and within minutes he replied “call me”. So I called him. Within a week we had arranged for me to visit to his house for a chat.

Compelling view

I had a sense from listening back to his radio interviews that John’s views on mental health and madness were being continually refined. As time went on I became more and more interested in what he had to say – it was increasingly compelling.

So on that rainy Friday last September when he welcomed me in to his home I wasn’t quite sure how the conversation would unfold. But I looked forward to it with an open and eager mind.

The conversation

I sat at John’s bedside in his wheelchair for two hours of roller-coaster conversation. Things started well. John knew I was studying under Lydia Sapouna in UCC, someone he worked with and admired. When I told John of my “establishment” past in the HSE he pointed out that I was like an ex-priest.

As the conversation developed we veered from open two-way discussion, to John reading some of his poetry and berating me for being in a comfort zone. He said my eyes were closed to the abuses people were experiencing in mental health services.

What are rights?

At one point John showed me a book on warfare tactics, resounding evidence of John’s role as a staunch activist. He was clear on his mission of human rights for the so-called ‘mad-community’. What are rights if we aren’t all entitled to them? His passion to achieve that mission was unyielding.

I don’t think John was won over about my argument that the creation of “otherness” in the guise of the “mad community” has the potential to deflect from the vital importance of mental health as part of the human experience.

By the time I left I have to admit I was rattled. But he did shake my hand at the end of the meeting and promised to keep in touch about mental health issues.

What’s most important?

Those of us working in mental health debate the most important approach to influencing positive change, the language used and the audiences we should speak to. In many ways those issues don’t matter in the wider scheme of things.

What does make a difference is the presence of loud, clear, passionate mental health voices that refuse to shut up. We lost one of those voices this week, but his legacy will live on. If John’s identity became wrapped in the cause of the mad community, it also remained strong around his sense of place.

Madness – celebrate it

On sunny Sunday afternoons in Fitzgerald’s park in the heart of Cork city, where John celebrated Mad Pride each year, I’m sure we’ll continue to celebrate madness and pay tribute to him for many years to come.

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