The Irish are great sympathisers, but poor empathisers
Lack of empathy comes about because of political regimes and religion
Minister for Children & Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, TD, with Margaret Martin, Director of Women’s Aid, at the launch of Women’s Aid ‘Impact Report’ in May: Dara Mac Dónaill
The National Safeguarding Committee was established in 2014 to promote the rights of adults who may be vulnerable, including people with dementia, mental health problems, or physical and intellectual disabilities. It has recently launched a campaign about what constitutes abuse, which includes taking money without a person’s knowledge, over-medicating, and psychological abuse such as shouting, name-calling and using force to control the vulnerable adult. These are all forms of bullying and unfortunately caregivers are often the bully.
Almost 8,000 concerns about vulnerable adult abuse concerns were reported to the HSE in 2016. Physical abuse was the most common type of abuse reported among 18-64 year olds, followed by psychological and sexual abuse. Psychological abuse was the most common type of abuse reported among over-65s, followed by physical and financial abuse.
A survey of 1,004 adults, Vulnerable Adults in Irish Society: Nationwide Public Opinion Survey 2016, found that almost half of the population has experienced or observed abuse of a vulnerable adult. Some one-third has witnessed physical abuse and another third has experienced or witnessed emotional abuse. A majority of respondents (84 and 81 per cent, respectively) were unclear as to what constitutes psychological and financial abuse. Surely everyone over 18 knows that stealing money is wrong?
Fortunately, fewer schoolchildren are now being bullied. Trends in Health Behaviours, Health Outcomes and contextual factors between 1998 and 2014: Findings from the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC), shows that there was a statistically significant decrease in the percentage of children who reported bullying others in the past couple of months (25 per cent in 1998; 13 per cent in 2014). School bullying policies are working which is good news.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about domestic violence – another form of bullying - which is on the increase. Last year, Women’s Aid received 20,769 domestic violence disclosures. Like the vulnerable adults group, psychological abuse was the most common type of abuse followed by physical abuse, financial abuse and sexual abuse. The vast majority of perpetrators of domestic violence are men who deliberately use abusive behaviour to control their partners. Media campaigns designed to prevent domestic violence have had no impact. Domestic violence is not taken seriously enough by the justice system. Recently a man who beat his girlfriend and threatened to set her on fire was sentenced to just two-and-a-half years, with 18 months suspended.
Prof Pat Dolan, Unesco chair of the Child and Family Research Centre in NUI, Galway, says “bullying and all the way to violent extremism” happen because of an absence of empathy. The centre wants compulsory empathy education provided in schools. Theoretically, the Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) school programme is supposed to teach empathy, but it mostly teaches children about themselves: self-care, self-confidence and self-esteem. Empathy is about understanding and respecting the rights of others. The Irish are great sympathisers, but poor empathisers. Had the nation been more empathetic from the 1920s onwards there would have been no Magdalene laundries or mother and baby homes. No babies would have been taken from their mothers and sold or given away.
Lack of empathy comes about because of political regimes (think of the Nazis) and the influence of religion.
Empathy and religion are incompatible and the Catholic Church is partly responsible for the lack of empathy in Irish people. Social media further reduces levels of empathy in society.
While it is sickening to think of vulnerable adults being bullied, everyone is at risk. Maybe it’s time to have a National Safeguarding Committee to protect all age groups. Unless countries strive to improve population empathy levels, humans are on the road to extinction.