Powerful voice for mentally ill people

Sat, Jan 21, 2012, 00:00

John McCarthy:JOHN McCARTHY, who has died aged 61, founded the mental health lobby group Mad Pride. Having been affected by mental illness himself, he became a powerful advocate for the rights of people similarly afflicted.

Fearful he would lose his home in Cork, he suffered a mental breakdown in the 1980s and spent time in a psychiatric hospital. Surviving depression and a suicide attempt, he was deeply moved by the plight of those living with mental illness. He believed their problem was not lack of resources but “an ethos based on the right to force a cure on victims who are patients. I will fight that abusive ethos as long as I have a breath in me”, he said.

Critical of the laws relating to mental health, he claimed they empowered “two psychiatrists to sign a piece of paper and lock you up for the rest of your life because you’ve been diagnosed with a mental health problem. It’s based on nothing more than opinion, and that’s part of the cruelty of the mental-health system. You can be incarcerated and force-treated against your will.”

He was a born campaigner, and had the quick wit of Cork’s northside, expressing his views in forthright columns and stirring up public debate on mental health issues. The central tenet of his Mad Pride philosophy is the “normality of madness”, a theme adopted by thousands of supporters at annual festivals in Cork, Portlaoise and Tullamore.

Charismatic, outspoken and colourful, he was relentlessly cheerful in his fight with cancer, a battle he won two years ago, only to learn two hours after getting the all-clear that he had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease. Despite his illness, he continued to campaign tirelessly.

He also championed the cause of immigrants seeking asylum and citizenship in Ireland, and became a director of Concern.

He was educated by the Christian Brothers at the North Mon in Cork, and in a busy life he worked as an auctioneer and a publican.

When Mad Pride made submissions to the Department of Justice on proposed mental health legislation, McCarthy was appointed by Kathleen Lynch, Minister of State for Disability and Mental Health, to a body charged with implementing the national disability strategy.

In a tribute, she described him as having the “drive, determination and infectious enthusiasm needed to bring about meaningful change . . . any time I met John, I always came away with a smile and a laugh”. In similar vein, the leader of Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin, said McCarthy had “helped bring about a major change in how people view mental illness”.

As a delegate for the Irish branch of MindFreedom, an international coalition of 100 campaign groups, he addressed a UN convention in New York in 2006 on the rights of the disabled.

Putting his money where his mouth was, he ran as an Independent candidate in the 2007 general election in Cork North Central to highlight mental health issues. After getting 702 first-preference votes, he quipped his two fears had been “first that I wouldn’t get a vote and my even bigger fear was that I would get elected”.

He is survived by his wife Liz, children David and Jill, his mother Agnes, sisters Eleanor, Betty and Mona, and brothers Liam, Thomas and Derry.


John McCarthy: born May 13th, 1950; died January 10th, 2012