'Veil of secrecy' on mental health must be tackled, says Buttimer


FINE GAEL TD Jerry Buttimer has said there is a new openness in Irish society about mental health issues but a “veil of secrecy” remains that must be removed.

Mr Buttimer maintained that in his eight years in politics there was a greater willingness to acknowledge that many people are in distress and that mental health is a society issue that should be tackled at every level rather than an issue that is peculiar to individuals.

Speaking last week at the launch of the annual report of the teenage mental health website Reach Out, he described young people as resourceful and creative in dealing with their own mental health issues.

The website, which is run by the charity Inspire Ireland, attracted 143,652 Irish visits and 114,185 unique visitors in the year between June 2011 and this June.

Some 68 per cent of those who used the service say they would prefer to go online to seek mental health support than to call a helpline.

Inspire Ireland was established in 2009, with the aim of improving the mental health of young people in Ireland, most notably through its website ReachOut.com.

Some three-quarters of those who accessed the site reported feeling under mental stress, depression or anxiety. Isolation, strain on relationships and money worries were the reasons most often cited for contacting the service.

The most frequently commented upon issues were depression (28 per cent) and anxiety (16 per cent), followed by other issues such as bullying and abuse, suicide and self-harm, romantic relationships and eating disorders.

Reflecting these trends, the depression and anxiety factsheets were the most visited factsheets on the website during this time.

Mr Buttimer spoke of his own “fear, denial and confusion” over his sexuality that led him into counselling in his early 30s.

He became the first Fine Gael TD to openly “out” himself as gay, which he did last year. He said he has received complete acceptance from the Fine Gael party, friends and family, and the GAA, in which he is involved.

“If I knew then what life would have been like I would have come out earlier,” he said.

Mr Buttimer explained that his sexuality was the main reason why he sought counselling, along with his decision to quit studying for the priesthood in Maynooth after five years.

“I was a classic ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. I hid my sexuality and busied myself doing other things. I was in relationships with women. I reached a point where you continue to live a lie or you become happy in accepting yourself for what you are.

“I found counselling very beneficial. It was challenging, and it was tough because it probed questions about myself and that is what we have to do in mental health.”

He said it was important that young gay people knew their worth. “We are people who have values and we want to play a part in society. I’m happy to live my life as a gay person and to make a valuable contribution.”

Mr Buttimer, who has a degree in theology, said he remains a practicing Catholic. He described his sexuality as a “gift that was given to me and I very much use the phrase ‘gift’.

“If I did not have a belief in God, my life would be a lot poorer. When I wake up there is a chance of new change, new opportunities and it is predicated on the fact that I have been given a gift.

“The God I believe in does not condemn or judge me. He loves me for who I am.”

Mr Buttimer said his sexuality was known to his friends and family before he went public last year and that he did so to advocate publicly for equal rights for gay people.