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I watched my grandmother disappear into mental illness and believed I was doomed to follow

Ireland is struggling with a mental health crisis, while we are flooded with fluffy, often pseudoscientific therapeutic advice via social media

'I was 18 when I witnessed my grandmother spiral into the sort of madness most of us only ever interact with through fiction.' Image: Artis777/Agency Photos

In a country where most of us still struggle to send dangerously undercooked fish back to a restaurant kitchen for fear of making a scene and where “I’m grand” is the only answer to a query about one’s wellbeing that won’t leave the other person visibly uncomfortable, it makes sense that we struggle to be completely open when we’re in distress.

Ireland has a mental health problem. Aware’s national survey in 2023 confirmed that rates of depression and anxiety in particular are high, with 60 per cent of respondents reporting that they had experienced depression and 80 per cent having experienced anxiety. Meanwhile, research published by the European Commission in the same year reported that of the 27 EU member states surveyed, Ireland is the most difficult country in which to access mental healthcare.

Demand is high, access to care is limited, and Irish culture has not historically encouraged openness about mental health problems. Prioritising our emotions can be seen as self-indulgent. Encouragement to “talk about it” is also relatively useless — and arguably even harmful — without accessible services to meaningfully help a vulnerable person after finally “opening up”. Talking is a route to progress and not a solution in itself, but talk is cheap, so governments often encourage it as an easy solution. It’s not just Ireland. Similar mental health trends are reflected in other western countries. People are suffering in the UK and US too, with young people in particular reporting that they feel unprecedentedly stressed, depressed and anxious.

People’s problems can spiral from mild to serious to acute while they are left to flounder, unsupported, on waiting lists to access the dignity of basic care

As someone who comes from a family with a history of serious mental illness, I’ve watched the public conversation around mental health change since a diagnosis of depression in my teens. There is a difference between struggling mentally — a decidedly sane response to the rapidly changing, politically riven, over-digitised and financially stressed times in which we live — and a mental illness. My grandmother was sectioned and hospitalised for more than a year after decades of severe mental health problems which ultimately descended into psychosis. She left school at 12 to care for her younger siblings after her mother’s death and married a much older man at 18 to escape a difficult family situation. I was 18 when I witnessed her spiral into the sort of madness most of us only ever interact with through fiction. Struggling with my difficulties, I was diagnosed with depression that same year. I watched my grandmother disappear inside her illness in the firm belief that hers was a fate I must eventually inevitably share. As though it was some sort of genetic destiny through generations.


As rigorous mental healthcare becomes more difficult to access and the public conversation on mental health becomes louder and vaguer, with more and more pathologisation of what seems like normal emotional responses to the inevitable stresses of life, our fixation on our emotional state only deepens. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this widespread sense of low wellbeing exists in the context of a social media-fuelled obsession with “wellness” as an industry. Poor access to mental healthcare coincides with ubiquitous therapy speak. It’s a consequence of thriving TherapyTok and Instagram therapy content, in which everyone from mental health professionals like psychologists and psychotherapists to nebulously qualified life coaches distil complex therapeutic information into one-dimensional listicle video clips.

“Five Signs Someone is a Highly Sensitive Person”. “Three Ways High-Functioning Depression May Affect Your Relationships”. “Do I Have an Anxious Attachment Style?” “Does Losing Focus at Work Mean I Have ADHD?” We are inundated with fluffy, often pseudoscientific therapeutic advice through social media. Wellness companies push apps that encourage us to log in and seriously examine every emotion as we experience it. We are continually sold narcissistic self-obsession in the guise of introspection and flooded by messaging that suggests anything other than a state of balanced, focused contentment is tantamount to some sort of mental disorder, often one over which we ultimately don’t have any control. Never mind that “Highly Sensitive Person” or “High-Functioning Depression” are not actually diagnosable conditions. Or that attachment theory was developed as a means of understanding the relationships between children and their caregivers, not between adults in romantic relationships. Or that work is boring sometimes and losing focus is what bored brains do.

Collectively, we are in a difficult situation. There is an undeniable crisis of mental distress and ill health. People’s problems can spiral from mild to serious to acute while they are left to flounder, unsupported, on waiting lists to access the dignity of basic care. They may feel abandoned or dismissed by our healthcare system. This objective problem co-exists with more subjective and complex ones, where both people who can’t access care and people who struggle in entirely usual ways seek shelter in viewing their lives primarily through a therapeutic lens. At 18, I considered their difficulty not as descriptive – a description of the present situation, useful information from which to build coping skills and get healthier – but as prescriptive. A sort of psychological or neurological life sentence upon which our choices have no influence. An incontrovertible genetic destiny. This can only promote self-obsession and create an expectation that people adapt their behaviour to maximise our emotional comfort. It generates a deeply paralysing victim mentality.

Through cognitive behavioural therapy, which I was lucky to be able to access through my university, I learned about my role in getting well again. It taught me to seek constructive discomfort rather than equate what felt safest in the moment with what was best for me long term. I pushed myself through a difficult time with support and learned to work on the areas of my life over which I had control, rather than focus constantly on the ones over which I didn’t. Eventually, I came to realise that my grandmother’s fate was not necessarily my own if I took active measures to help prevent it. That my mental state is something I can actively contribute to for better or worse rather than merely something I am at the mercy of. Without access to that crucial help, my life may well have taken another direction, but one thing is certain. Social media therapy listicles are a poor substitute for meaningful support.

If you need help, contact The Samaritans on freecall 116 123 (available 24/7)