Tuesday, 29 May 2018

The mental health toll of the campaign to Repeal the Eighth

Many of you know, May has been a hectic month for me. Ireland held a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment of our constitution. The amendment equated the unborn’s life to that of the mother’s and thereby banning abortion in all circumstances (including rape, incest, women’s healthcare and a fatal foetal abnormalitiy, meaning the foetus will not survive outside the womb) unless her life was in immediate risk. Repealing the eighth amendment is how I spent my month, and I will always look back on the past six weeks with pride, knowing that I did what I could to ensure no more Irish women are denied care and support at home. A YES victory on May 26th didn’t bring me happiness, just relief. Relief that in future, we will care for our women in Ireland without forcing them to travel or to take illegal abortion pills without medical supervision and support.

The campaign took my free time and my money. But it also took a mental toll.

During the past six weeks I was called a slut, a whore, a murderer, a Nazi, as bad as Hitler. I was told to close my legs and then I wouldn’t need an abortion. I was shouted at, publicly prayed for and blessed. I was told my mother would have aborted me.

I had to listen to other women being attacked and torn down both online and offline. I stood beside a mother who had a termination, for a much-wanted pregnancy that would not survive outside the womb, being screamed at and called a murderer. I stood by her as she cried and tried to compose herself before moving on to the next door to knock.

And I listened to debates on national television about whether mental health was a real illness, a legitimate health concern. Elected politicians denied that mental health was real health, said that it has no 'evidence base'. ‘Vague mental health grounds’, 'undefined mental health grounds' was a term thrown around by psychiatrists to tarnish women and cast doubts about their deeply personal decisions. Many such decisions to terminate are made on mental health grounds – but there’s nothing vague about mental illness. These same psychiatrists said risk of suicide shouldn’t be grounds for an abortion just a few years ago.

I learned that stigma still exists around mental health, no matter how many organisations claim it has decreased. It continues to be used as a weapon against young women. A reason not to listen to them. Not to trust them. We have a lot of work to do to eradicate this attitude.

And I contemplated who the eighth amendment would impact me if my mental illness returned during a pregnancy – the medication I would be denied so it wouldn’t harm the foetus, the trauma of being told my baby wouldn’t survive but having to carry it to term, that I would be forced to contemplate suicide before this country would even consider helping me.

And throughout the campaign I felt my own mental health suffer.

Three weeks out from the vote and I became emotional. The names I’d been called finally sunk in and I’d lie on my bed and cry. I couldn’t sleep, and would toss and turn instead repeating arguments or things I should have said in my head. I cried on the phone to my mum as I asked finally worked up the courage to ask her how she was voting.

On other days, I would feel restless and useless if I wasn’t out volunteering, leafleting or canvassing. I’d wish I could do more, help more.

I had to force myself to take a day off from the campaign each week – a self-care day I called it.
Because just like if I’m ever pregnant or a mother someday, if I don’t look after my own mental health (however vague the anti-abortion campaign felt it was) then I can’t help anyone.  So on these days I would go to the gym and cycle out my anger and fear. I would make a healthy dinner and put on a face mask. I would read and avoid the TV debates as much as possible.

On May 24th, the day before the vote, I felt physically sick with nerves. The knots in my stomach twisting until I thought I would throw up.

The result on May 26th brought relief. Relief for women and families, but also for me. I am glad that it’s over and we never have to go through that again. Because now I have considerable work to do to build up my resilience again and protect my mental health. And I know countless other campaigners who now have to do the same. Many had to share private and personal stories, traumatic memories, to lend their voice to the campaign and secure a YES vote. A lot of healing needs to take place privately for these families. A lot of public learning and apologizing needs to take place for those of us with a mental illness to feel accepted.

For the past four days I have felt shaky and weak, jumpy at the smallest noise, on the verge of tears. I know that I need to process the past six weeks and make peace with it. And this is my first step.

Until next time,

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