Secular sainthood seems an appropriate assessment of how a child sick with cancer functions as a Class A discourse-closer. The illness seems to confer ex cathedra speaking rights; he or she who would dissent does so at the peril of being labelled ‘heartless’ or ‘cruel’ or ‘inhumane’.
Whither such authority? It seems to swell in death, per de mortuis nisi nihil bonum, at least in the case of Dónal Walsh. He was a 16 year old from Tralee, Co. Kerry, who succumbed to terminal lung cancer last year. It is a curious case, in how the teenager was vaulted to the level of national talisman with the power to ward off the bogeyman of suicide.
Extravagant claims for the influence of his ‘message’ (and more on that anon) have been made by no less than the coroner for County Kerry, who claimed to record no suicides in a six month period in 2013. (link)
The coroner produced no evidence for this claim, of course (beyond his word), and we can’t easily subject the reports of all inquests to close-reading and cross-reference without making applications to the Circuit Court Registrar for each and every one that took place in the county in 2013. (link)
A cynic might, rightly, recall that anodyne expression, ‘death by misadventure’, however, which is so often the verdict returned to spare family and societal blushes. And in any case - statistical variations over such a short period are dangerous to infer from.
Suicide immediately offers up a complicated, and multi-faceted, psycho-social problematique requiring an inter-agency approach, and, most importantly, state-funding. Psychotherapy and counselling are not cheap (link). A perspicacious reader might already anticipate the snag.
Which is that the legacy of someone with no apparent experience of mental health issues has been deftly deployed by the HSE, RTÉ and National Office of Suicide Prevention (NOSP) to serve as a basis for crude slogans rather than hard cash for services. This is social media throughput functioning as a substitute for meaningful public policy. (1) A mental health policy, to wit, that ends with talking ‘at’ people rather than listening to them or their needs (or, perish the thought, giving them a primetime documentary at 9pm on New Year’s Day.) (2)
The Church in Kerry speaks of Dónal Walsh’s ‘witness’ (he shares this quality with sainted martyrs) (3); six members of the Munster Rugby squad acted as pall-bearers at his funeral; (4) ex-Rugby player-cum-questionable-social-conscience, Bressie, waxes about how ‘inspirational’ and brave a ‘hero’ he was. (5) He wasn’t alone with that particular brace (or trio) of banalities. (6)
And herein lies the most grievous fault of all - which is with the message itself. Olivia O’Leary, (7) and plenty of others who show the success of how well it is being communicated, (8) are piously rapt by a paradigm of mental illness as ‘personal choice.’ The corollary of that is personal failure or weakness.
For you see, ‘heroes’ must have ‘villains’. For there to be ‘strong’ and worthy or ‘inspirational’ individuals with (or without) mental illness begs their shadow; unworthy wretches who are ‘weak’, ‘uninspiring’, or who ‘don’t bother to help themselves’.
A discussion of the structural causes of mental illness (e.g. personal debt, workplace stress, unemployment, racial discrimination, misogyny, homophobia, bullying, learning difficulties, sexual violence, domestic violence, etc.) is noticeably absent - we don’t want to embarrass anyone or any particular institution. For God’s sake, it’s Ireland!
The comparisons between physical and mental illness were implicit, asinine and derogatory to begin with: what right have you to be ‘depressed’ (nothing but your ‘notions’ perhaps) when the ‘amazing young lad’ with all those malignant tumours, pumped full of chemo drugs, and crippled by excruciating physical pain, ‘loved life’ despite it all? Dónal Walsh himself sought to analogise his cancer and the mental anguish of those whom I shall dub ‘Without Cancer (TM)’:
“I realised that I was fighting for my life for the third time in four years and this time I have no hope. Yet still I hear of young people committing suicide and I’m sorry but it makes me feel nothing but anger.
I feel angry that these people choose to take their lives, to ruin their families and to leave behind a mess that no one can clean up.
Yet I am here with no choice, trying as best I can to prepare my family and friends for what’s about to come and leave as little a mess as possible.
I know that most of these people could be going through financial despair and have other problems in life, but I am at the depths of despair and, believe me, there is a long way to go before you get to where I am. For these people, no matter how bad life gets, there are no reasons bad enough to make them do this; if they slept on it or looked for help they could find a solution, and they need to think of the consequences of what they are about to do.” (my emphases)
What contained above can inspire, rather than chill the blood?
By Dónal’s admission, it is penned in anger (not exactly proven effective in psychiatric interventions - RTÉ’s Morning Ireland rendered it as ‘pleading’ ) with sustained denigration and dehumanisation of those who contemplate suicide as if they offend against amorphous common decency (‘these people … ruin their families’).
It is then rounded out with a shocking lack of empathy (‘there are no reasons’) which less scrupulous interests will be delighted to champion (i.e. don’t blame anybody, save the individual). After all, ‘heroes’ don’t make ‘excuses’ (9)
Consider then that it was this screed of Dónal’s which won for him the laurels of national treasure.
I think we’ve raised plenty of ‘awareness’ by now that mental illness is real (!); but even to operate at that tawdry level, so often utilised as a vehicle for celebrity aggrandisement, what exactly has Walsh accomplished except precisely the kind of stigmatisation our chattering classes claim to be well since past?
In fact, to judge from how many indulged in the artifice of a ‘good old cry’ watching a documentary of his life, this was about making those in good health feel better about themselves at others’ expense. (10)
I must confess that mental illness is a deeply personal issue: as I am one of ‘those people’ derisorily referred to who seriously contemplated suicide for a very long time, both in my teens and as a young adult. I had even worked out a coherent plan to achieve it (latterly). I was helped by non-judgemental counselling and medication. That counselling focused as much on why I sincerely wanted to end my life as why I shouldn’t. It wasn’t lop-sided; or full of faux-positivity and saccharine good intentions from the self-help genre. Namely, that was because such a course would have been ineffectual rubbish; or medically unsound, if you will.
Yet, who am I, a lowly begrudger I’m sure, to reject The Child of Prague made flesh to save the likes of me from myself? (11) May we kneel before him seeking benediction, and no man jack or woman jill kill him- or herself e’er again. Blessed are the ‘insane’, for they have no agency (that’s ‘cop-on’ to you), Amen.
http://www.rte.ie/player/ie/show/10238513/ (broadcast 1st Jan 2014)
Dónal’s parents also attended the dedication of a monument to Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty in Killarney earlier this year, where his father drew comparisons between the Vatican WWII-era diplomat and his son: ‘they both saved lives’ and ‘didn’t play by the rules’
(This should get special mention: ‘International Hero’)
(The construction industry, implicated in a suicide over Priory Hall - link - decides that this is a good bandwagon as any to get that bad taste out of its mouth:)
ad nauseam - but honourable mention for the death of hyperbole must go to:
http://t.co/m62CHyYgmj (Irish Times, 14th May, 2013)
A wonderful contra by blogger @HiredKnave over on Twitter gently pulls the legs out from under O’Leary.
What is this door, and why did I never see one? Guess my betters know best.
And the rest of the passing parade of ‘choose life’ and ‘cop on to yourself’:
I was particularly amused to read that ‘nobody talked about suicide’ before Dónal Walsh