Brent Pope: Research is vital in the field of mental health

25 Nov 2016

Brent Pope. Image: RTÉ

Rugby pundit Brent Pope talks about the stigma surrounding the issue of mental health and why continuous research is important to understand what we can about the complexities of the human mind.

Positive mental health has become one of the most talked about and researched health issues of our time. Statistics already tell us that one in four people will be affected by some mental health issue during their lifetime, either directly or indirectly, but my own opinion is that this is probably much higher.

Thankfully, generations change, and with that comes progress – even in the language we use around mental health.  The problem is that the symptoms of mental distress are often locked away, masked and hidden.

Everybody can see physical disability and with that comes appropriate empathy and sympathy, but with those suffering from mental health issues, it is the iceberg submerged under water that is doing the most damage. We need to radically change that approach and encourage those suffering to get what’s inside outside.

‘With those suffering from mental health issues, it is the iceberg submerged under water that is doing the most damage’

In the middle ages, doctors had barbaric and often torturous ways of purging the mind of evil thoughts. This is certainly shocking, and not a style of treatment we would ever want to revive, but the idea of encouraging expression of internal suffering has value. To encourage people to talk about their problems is vital, and research shows us that is the best way forward: ‘change the in, to change the out’. Acceptance of mental ill health is slow and despite radical changes, it is still heavily stigmatised.

As a young man growing up in rural New Zealand, I sadly had no professional help for my crippling anxiety and panic attacks. Mental health weakness was simply not discussed, and for many it was, in fact, taboo. It horrifies us now to think about people being locked away in mental health intuitions, heavily medicated with mind-altering drugs or imprisoned in straitjackets for even the slightest deviation from the norm.

Yet these things happened, and were often the images associated with mental health, even here in Ireland. Such practices were meant to be for the patient’s own safety, but they were really for society’s safety. Society could deal easily with physical illness, but questions around mental health were different, and issues such as suicide and addiction problems were swept under the carpet, with little sympathy or understanding for the sufferer.

‘The human mind is the most complex computer in the world’

How I longed for some professional person to put an arm around me when I was young and say, “This will all be OK”, that what I felt was not so abnormal after all, and that I wasn’t so alone in this world. But in my generation, you had to be the strong silent type, and as a young man you were told “real men don’t cry, suck it up, man up, and harden up”. But, I subsequently found that real men do in fact cry, quite often actually, and that they face the ups and downs in life like anybody else.

Research is more important than ever in the field of mental health. What treatments work, what medication works, what therapies work, how good nutrition works – the list is long and varied, but each piece of the jigsaw helps us to learn about issues beneath the surface.

Research may show us what we are doing wrong as well as what we are doing right. After all, the human mind is the most complex computer in the world. Research has shown us that how we treated mental health sufferers in the past was damaging, which makes one wonder what research will show us in 10 years’ time.

Continuous research is vital to helping us learn as much as we can about the human condition, and to helping us understand that it’s OK not to be OK at times, and it’s more than OK to ask for help.

By Brent Pope

After a successful career as a professional rugby player and coach in his native New Zealand, Brent Pope has become a one of Ireland’s best known rugby pundits, media personalities and charity ambassadors. Brent is particularly dedicated to the work of Irish charities linked to youth and mental health issues, such as ‘Cycle Against Suicide’ and ‘Walk In My Shoes’.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Irish Research Council blog.