Thursday, 3 June 2021
Mental Health During and Post Covid-19: Statements
James O'Connor (Cork East, Fianna Fail)
I thank the Minister of State for being here to have a conversation with us on the issue of mental health.
I have said it many times before but, as the youngest member of the Oireachtas, I will say this is obviously a very important issue to many younger people across society.
First, I commend the Minister of State on the work she is doing on her own portfolio. It has not been easy to deal with that in the midst of a global pandemic and to handle also issues with older people. Perhaps that is where I will begin; it is an interesting combination.
I hear an awful lot about the issue of rural isolation from people living across rural Ireland, and it particularly affects many older people in our communities. Many people also tell me they have a desire to move into urban areas and have access to accommodation, whether rental accommodation or by selling their family homes or, perhaps, if they are living on their own, by selling where they are living and moving into urban areas to be around village communities. I am talking about places like Cill An Oir in County Cork or Portlaw in County Waterford, in the Minister of State's constituency. People want to move into those settings to be with other people and tackle the issue of isolation, which is obviously very important across rural Ireland.
I want to come into the House with suggestions. I heard much negativity today from the Opposition about the performance of this Government but the reality is that we are dealing with the biggest challenge that has faced this State since its foundation. We have done a relatively decent job of protecting people's health, livelihoods and their families' incomes. I am glad the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, is the person in this particular role of dealing with the enormous challenges in front of us. I know she will do her very best in this area.
I would love to see a focus being put on people who are hoping to move location from rural Ireland into more urban settings where they will be around the support services in our villages and towns. The Minister of State could champion this. It is specific to both areas within her Department as somebody who works on issues facing older people and also on mental health. Of course, rural isolation comes very much into that.
Another very important issue is the effect of social media, which can take an awful toll on the mental health of young people. I grew up in a generation where every young person in the country had access to a mobile telephone or smartphone and social media. I am probably part of the first generation that was really raised with it from a young age. It is doing enormous damage to young people's confidence in themselves. Online bullying is a major contributor to people developing serious mental health issues and, unfortunately, also to suicide.
It is completely unacceptable that in the year 2021, decades after social media came into play in people's lives, we still have not grappled globally, never mind in Ireland, with how to take on the issue of online bullying with tech giants. We should work very closely with many of the companies located here to find ways to make social media a safer space for younger people, and deal with the confidence issues many younger people experience because of the pressures of social media. They are extraordinarily large issues, which cannot be underestimated. At a European level, the European Commission also needs to show leadership. The more states that work together on this particular issue, the more progress we will achieve together.
One interesting point raised by many Deputies, of which my colleague, Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan, is very much supportive, is the ability to bring people who are working in areas such as sports - many of our famous sports stars, for instance - into schools to give motivational talks to students to help boost their self-confidence in those very early years of their secondary education and throughout. That is often when people become much more self-aware in terms of their growth and development. It is also quite a vulnerable age for many students going on to third level.
Finally, it is important for Government to take up the following message. I am going to be 24 years old this month; I am 23 now. Many people I know are wrapping up their higher education at the moment. The effect of the pandemic on many people's ability to communicate with others or meet up with friends and on their social lives by not being in their traditional educational setting, whether they are in university or in further education, has been hugely damaging. A major priority of this Government should be to make sure that we can get our students back into lecture theatres and into their tutorials, in person, so they can get the interpersonal experience that third level education is supposed to be in people's lives. I would be absolutely delighted if we could just get that goal sorted out.