I was talking to a mad man yesterday. Please don’t take offence, the man himself certainly won't. John McCarthy, from Cork, openly describes himself as a proud member of the mad community.
Stigmatised: mental health problems are often viewed as shameful; (below) campaigner John McCarthy
The founder of the Mad Pride Ireland movement, John has spent years fighting for the rights of people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness.
He has also spent vast amounts of his own money trying to challenge the stigma around madness — to show that it's an everyday thing, as old as the hills and present in every family.
He organises happy, crazy Mad Pride family events. Massive outdoor parties where everyone who enters is given a ‘normality test' by clowns using rubber chicken ‘normality detectors'. No one has passed that test yet.
John couldn't be more full of life. He's irreverent, passionate and hilariously rude. He wears his long, white hair in a ponytail. He loves his wife deeply — as he says, with a twinkle, “to be able to make love to your best friend is a great asset.”
And last month, he announced that he is dying.
John McCarthy has motor neurone disease — that relentless illness that used to be known as creeping paralysis. His muscles are wasting away and soon he won't be able to speak anymore.
John knows he doesn't have long left. That's why it's more important than ever to listen to what he has to say.
Here in Northern Ireland, we have a big problem with how we view and treat mental illness — or madness, as John calls it, since no doctor has ever proved to him that his brain has a disease called ‘mental illness' — his words have a special importance. Northern Ireland has one of the highest incidences of mental illness in the developed world. Suicides here reached a record high last year, with 313 people taking their own lives — six times more than those killed on the roads.
Perhaps it's no wonder that living in this country over the last few decades has driven so many people mad. With one-in-three people here directly affected by the Troubles, it would be surprising if they weren't deeply traumatised. People riddled with anxiety, haunted by a lurking darkness they can never seem to shake off, often trying to take the pain away with alcohol or drugs.
And then there's the madness that is handed down through the generations. That terrible unacknowledged burden of the conflict — the war-damaged mother or father, who passes that damage on to the fragile psyches of their children in a never-ending, downward spiral of dysfunction and misery.
It seems almost beyond belief that, while levels of mental illness are substantially higher here than in mainland Britain, funding is substantially less.
In addition, mental health services in Northern Ireland lag significantly behind those in the rest of the UK. Child and adolescent mental health provision is particularly poor, with youngsters being treated on adult psychiatric wards — if you have ever visited one, you'll know how appallingly inappropriate that is — or having to go across the water for proper treatment.
And yet, in spite of the ubiquity of mental illness in this country, it's hardly visible at all. It's rarely spoken about, but instead kept tucked away behind closed doors.
Madness is treated with silence, stigma and shame, which only compounds the problem and makes it even more unmentionable. We fear madness almost as much as we fear cancer — perhaps more because it is invisible.
This is where John McCarthy comes in. He believes that we need to radically rethink how we see madness and mad people.
“Society has bought into this idea that the mad community is dangerous and to be feared, yet statistically we are the most peaceful members of society,” he says. John sees no shame at all in standing up and saying, “yes, I'm mad.” He believes that, while it was hateful and painful at the time, the madness that afflicted him — he attempted suicide and was locked up in a psychiatric unit for a year — ended up being “one of the most constructive learning experiences of my life. I learned how to receive love with confidence. I have learned how to be at peace with who I am”.
Beginning to talk openly about madness is no quick fix. But rather than seeing it as a socially shameful affliction, something to be hidden at all costs, why don't we view madness as a natural response to the terrible things that happened in this country?
If we can do that, then we're one step closer to getting better.
World Mental Health Day is on Monday, October 10