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Irish filmmaker criticises government’s approach to mental health

Director Terry McMahon speaking at the Belltable. Photo: Cillian Sherlock
Director Terry McMahon speaking at the Belltable. Photo: Cillian Sherlock

On the eve of Budget 2017, Irish filmmaker, Terry McMahon, was highly critical of Minister Leo Varadkar and the Irish government’s approach to Irish mental health.

“Leo Varadkar pulled €12m out of mental health at a time we needed it more than ever. He made that decision himself. When we come to the notion of an optimistic future, that hope is not manifesting in a fight enough to stop people like Leo Varadkar destroying our children’s future,” he said.

Mr McMahon was speaking at a Q&A session following the screening of his critically acclaimed film ‘Patrick’s Day’ in the Belltable Arts Centre during Limerick Mental Health Week.

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Director Terry McMahon speaking at the Belltable. Photo: Cillian Sherlock

The 2014 film stars Moe Dunford as Patrick, a young man with schizophrenia battling with his condition, his need for intimacy, his mother and the state institution he has been placed in.

Mr McMahon explained that he used to work as a trainee nurse in a psychiatric hospital and noticed that whenever patients had aspirations for intimate or sexual relationships they were “shut down”, and the behaviour was treated as a symptom of their disease as opposed to “a simple, human desire”.

“What we’re talking about, essentially, is a state intervention, or an intervention where somebody in power is allowed to determine your destiny simply because they have been given the authority to do so,” he said.

“Only 48 hours ago it was debated in the Dáil about whether or not we should change the legal ramifications of entitling someone with mental illness to engage in intimate acts. We still have not granted that basic right to somebody who has been deemed mentally ill. Straight away, to me, that is disturbing without measure,” he added.

The Q&A allowed members of the audience to share their experiences with mental health issues and psychiatric care, some of whom were speaking publicly for the first time. 

These emotional expressions were met with applause, and comfort from fellow audience members and the director himself. 

“Somebody like you is of profound importance for the future of how we access and address the reductionist, non-humanistic, nature of diagnostic mental illness,” he said to a mother who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder after the death of her son.

McMahon was also asked about specific elements of the film, such as the level to which he examined abuse of patients by psychiatric nurses.

He said he wanted to open up a conversation on the topic as a systematic problem rather than have it focused on individual cases and that Patrick’s response in the film showed it was a regular occurrence.

“The actuality is, we as so-called normal citizens, we see how appallingly we are being treated by our government. We see the level of disinterest in a profound crisis that’s happening in our health. If they are willing to treat us that way, when we are of a beneficial to them, how indifferent must they be to people who are of no benefit to them?” McMahon posited in response.

When asked by the Limerick Voice about the state of discussion around mental health in Irish filmmaking Mr McMahon said he wished we were making more films about the important issues in our culture.

“There’s no precedent for this film in our culture. There’s no precedent for the kind of political films that I think are important. There’s no funding bodies for those kind of films,” he said.

The film won many awards around the world, which McMahon said he recently sold “to pay for corrupt banks.”

“As a filmmaker you’re trying to do something that has significance but you can’t put food on the table, you can’t feed your children. The other side of it, the profound privilege, is we’ve screened this film all over the world and got the most extraordinary responses. The privilege of that, despite the fact you often can’t put food on the table, is a lifetime reward,” he added.

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