Why stiff upper lip means big bother for boys

When men talk its all about Man United or who’ll win the All-Ireland but it’s never about anything of substance, says veteran mental health professional Hubert McHugh

Hubert McHugh with his Leitrim Person of the Year 2017 award and his colleague Valerie Cogan

Hubert McHugh with his Leitrim Person of the Year 2017 award and his colleague Valerie Cogan

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Hubert McHugh says we need to change how we parent boys. “Fellows are in big bother in my estimation,” says the community mental health nurse who has been almost 43 years in the job. “It is very hard for them to talk.”

He and his colleague Valerie Cogan see most of their patients in their homes, and sometimes in clinics in towns and villages across south Leitrim and west Cavan. Up to the 1990s Hubert never had a patient who talked to him about sexual abuse, but now he estimates that half of his clients report that they have been abused. Often they are people who present with issues such as depression, anorexia, alcoholism , a history of self harming or suicide ideation.

“It’s like being admitted to the general hospital – we ask a lot of questions such as have you been bullied, have you been abused?” explains McHugh.

“You can nearly know before you get to the question at all,”added Cogan. “You are taking their history going back to childhood and you ask the question and they may have never told anyone before. And they may not realise this is the cause of their depression, or anorexia”.

But McHugh says men find it hard to talk. “They may hide away, and brood and do something very serious”.

Tomorrow night in Carrick-on-Shannon the pair present an event “Leitrim’s health is Wealth” which they hope will put the spotlight on the need for better communication in communities .

For a man whose phone is constantly ringing, McHugh has a horror of the amount of time people spend on smart phones and other devices, rather than having “face-to-face conversations”.

“You’d even see courting couples texting each other in the night club rather than talking,” he says.

Young men in particular are losing the art of conversation, he believes. “It is how we bring up boys. We need to change how we parent them. They are not supposed to cry or show an emotive side to their personality, and I think it would be much better for them if they did.” He says that when men talk its all about Man United or who’ll win the All-Ireland but it’s never about anything of substance.

“I think men have been trained to have a a stiff upper lip. And I believe that is why there is so much male suicide.

His colleague shares his concern about the smart phone culture.

“Young people can hide behind a screen” said Cogan. “They can be lying on the bed having a group conversation but they are not actually talking to anybody.

And if they are being bullied,they can no longer come home and feel safe because they cannot get away from it. There is no escape now because of Facebook and phones and it’s a huge pressure”.

The pressure on young people is a recurring theme with the duo .

“There are a lot of expectations on people to perform to a very high degree, to achieve the best points, to get on the best course in the best college. Young people feel that a lot,” said McHugh. “Long ago there was pressure on families to put pregnant girls into Magdalene laundries and now there are different kind of pressures . There’s pressure to make sure your kids do as well as Johnny and Mary down the road because everyone is watching what everyone gets in the Leaving Cert.

After four decades in the job Hubert has seen many changes, but while the stigma of mental illness has eased it’s not gone, he says. The 2017 Leitrim Person of the Year, he is a sociable outgoing man.

“If I walked into Tesco I would know most people in it, and some would love to talk to me but others might shun me,” he revealed. He knows it’s nothing personal, just a fear on the part of patients or their relatives that onlookers will suspect that they know him through his job.

He also points out that if a patient dies, for example as a result of suicide, the acknowledgements placed by the family in the Sligo Champion or the Leitrim Observer often include thanks to everyone from the GP and priest to the Garda and traffic stewards at the funeral, but with no mention of the role played by mental health professionals.

Suicide is of course the worst possible outcome for families and professionals. “In 50 per cent of cases they are not with the mental health service at all,” explained McHugh.

When somebody they were working with does commit suicide they are naturally devastated.

“Sometimes it happens when you least expect it. It can come out of the blue, when you think they are making progress,” said Valerie. “It’s very hard. They stay with you”.

Hubert agrees. “For weeks afterwards you may have nightmares.”

Ironically for a man with such a fixation on the need to limit phone use, his own mobile is rarely silent “I took four calls after eight o’clock yesterday evening,” said the Leitrim man

The late night calls are a lifeline for some, but often they are from patients who are just lonely and looking for a chat. “You might be the only living person they have contact with,” explained the McHugh who has no problem with the 24/7 nature of his job.

He started his career in St Columba’s psychiatric hospital, now the Clayton hotel in Sligo. There were 800 patients there and up to 400 hundred staff, making it the equivalent of Sligo’s second largest town. It was a self-sufficient entity with its own farm, vegetable gardens, barber shop, shoe repair shop, and even a slaughterhouse for the cattle.

Then patients started to move into the community and clinics opened in towns and villages around the county for former residents and others needing support with their mental health.

McHugh says that when he started his career post-natal depression was rarely heard of and those who did suffer got very little sympathy. “We rarely saw post-natal depression in the 1980s. Of course it was there but not acknowledged. Women who suffered were regarded as awkward. You were supposed to get on with it. “Valerie Cogan says GPs and public health nurses have become better at picking up post-natal depression. “It is very debilitating . There is such a huge sense of guilt for the woman who can feel that she’s not a good mother, that she cannot care for the child. A lot of the time we see it with the second child, rather than the first. Mothers can be overwhelmed.

Hubert McHugh says it might have something to do with the universal excitement over a first child. “The grandas and grannies and aunts and uncles are all involved and there is mighty help but it dries up a bit for the second one.”

Among the speakers at the Wednesday, May 16th “ Leitrim’s Health is Wealth” event at the Bush Hotel in Carrick (7pm) will be former GAA star Oisin McConville, Anna May McHugh the driving force behind the National Ploughing championship, author and GP Dr Harry Barry, actor Mary McEvoy, and RTÉ broadcaster Mary Kennedy.

Read: How to raise boys in the 21st century

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