What Sinead O’Connor Can Teach Us About Mental Health

Sinead O'Connor

TW: Discussion of mental health, including suicide.

Today, Sinead O’Connor posted an emotionally fraught video discussing her current and ongoing struggles with mental health. She tells us that she is alone and fighting to stay alive, drawing attention to the fact the she is one of “millions” around the world experiencing similar troubles. To those with experience of mental health issues, this video hits very close to home – as O’Connor is in a place that many of us have been in ourselves.

As someone who has, and does, struggle with mental health issues, the heartfelt reactions to O’Connor’s video are rousing, and indicate the warmth and compassion of human nature… but unfortunately, not all voices in this conversation are so mindful to the hardships that mental illness can bring.

“Without noticing the ugly irony of it, there have already been articles posted whipping up yet more stigma.”

O’Connor discusses the stigma attached to mental health issues, and seemingly without noticing the ugly irony of it, there have already been articles posted whipping up yet more stigma. An article by The Sun begins with a claim that O’Connor once threatened the author with violence (no context is given for this) and goes on to lay blame on the singer for pushing loved ones away, not hesitating to point out that the singer’s children and their fathers have been through this before “several very public times”.

This take on O’Connor’s video, despite being framed with acknowledgment that bipolar disorder is a “terrible illness”, is probably one of the most dangerous when a discussion is opened up about mental health. By largely placing blame on the victim, it gives an air of ‘she brought it on herself’, and even implies that this is all just for attention. It reinforces the idea that those suffering with mental illness are volatile, and that attempts to help will be met with hostility.

“This feeling of being totally alone is a symptom of mental illness, and absolutely not a stick with which to beat sufferers with.”

When going through a depressive episode, it absolutely feels as though you are alone, even when there are people around you telling you that you’re not. It can understandably be very frustrating to hear someone you care about say that they have no one, when you yourself are trying to help. But this feeling of being totally alone is a symptom of mental illness, and absolutely not a stick with which to beat sufferers with. When someone says they feel alone, it’s not because they don’t see and appreciate your efforts; it’s that despite all this, they still feel isolated by their depression. These people need help more than ever, not judgement and dismissal.

Whenever a celebrity death is ruled to be suicide linked to depression – Robin Williams, Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington – there is an outpouring of grief from the public. We mourn and we lament the fact that they did not speak out to the people around them, and ask for help.

This is what Sinead O’Connor is doing, right now.

There are people suffering from mental illness all around us, largely invisibly. There are people suffering on the end of your sofa just as much as there are people suffering on your screens. In her extremely candid video, O’Connor addressed the fact that there are “millions” of others just like her suffering, and that she hopes the video might help someone – but it’s down to the people watching to make that help a reality.

“This was a cry for help, and we need to listen rather than judge.”

This was a cry for help, and whether we have the ability to directly influence O’Connor’s own situation or not, we need to listen rather than judge. If not, we’ll be seeing the same publications currently speculating about how O’Connor might have pushed her loved ones away, posting articles asking why another mental health sufferer has taken their own life.

Since the video was posted, a message has been posted on the singer’s Facebook page reassuring people that she is safe, “surrounded by love and receiving the best of care”. We can be grateful for the response of the people in a position to help O’Connor, as it appears that they have been called to action. But now it’s our turn to listen out for the cries for help around us, some not as obvious as a video on Facebook, and make sure we respond with empathy, compassion and support.

It is not too late for Sinead O’Connor. It is not too late for us either.

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