It was the first Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education lesson of the year. Mental health is the topic for the PSHE lessons this term. The students discussed the material with varying degrees of understanding. Their comprehension of the questions is probably more developed than that of their forebears. Not that former generations were entirely unsympathetic.
In Ireland, “he is bad with his nerves,” was the the gentle country euphemism for suffering poor mental health has a sense of charity and understanding. There was a recognition that the person is separate from their health; ill health was something that happened to them, it was not something that defined them as a person. There was a recognition that poor mental health was something as real and tangible as the nerves in one’s body; that it was not a matter of choice, that it was not something one could choose not to have.
There was charity and understanding, but also confusion and bewilderment. Country life is tactile, it is measured in terms of what one can touch and what one can see, concepts such as growth and weight and yields can be enumerated. Physical illness is tactile, there are measurements, there are observable phenomena, there are discernible causes and effects. Mental illness does not possess such features; no thermometer or blood analysis can measure levels of unhappiness, no examination of the body can tell the degree of stress or anxiety in a person’s mind.
“He is bad with his nerves,” is almost a declaration that there is nothing else to be said on the matter, that the best that one could do is to proceed with a tolerant incomprehension.
“He was bad with his nerves,” was the explanation when tragedy befell a community, when someone they had known for a lifetime was found dead. The willingness of large numbers to join locally organised search parties, even on cold nights and in winter weather, is a reflection of an awareness that no-one knows when such grief may come knocking at their own door.
The problem arises when one is the person who is bad with one’s nerves. All one has is words, and words are sometimes inadequate to the task. To try to explain causes embarrassment, prompts defensive or dismissive responses: how could you have been thus troubled? Surely, such things didn’t happen, and, if they did, surely there was lots of support?
The students will hopefully grow up in a society where there is more than sympathetic euphemisms.