Limerick city and county councillors talk mental health

AS Limerick Mental Health Week continues across the city and county, Limerick’s politicians have been speaking out about the absence of mental health services that cater specifically for our politicians.

Speaking about services available specifically for city and county councillors, Social Democrats Councillor Elisa O’Donovan says “councillors don’t have any kind of access to any type of wellness or mental health supports”.

Coming from a medical background, Councillor O’Donovan says she looked into mental health services available to her when she first became a councillor.

“I’ve always worked in services where I’ve had access to an employee assistance program, where you can get free counselling so, when I joined the Limerick Council and I became an employee of the state and was being paid by the state, I did look into if there was going to be access to services,” Cllr. O’Donovan explains.

Labour Councillor Elena Secas also said that she was unaware of any mental health support services in place.

“Specifically for councillors and TDs I don’t think so, or I’m not aware of any,” Cllr. Secas says.

“I think in many workplaces you have a wellbeing program and I would welcome something like that for councillors in Limerick City and County Council,” she adds.

Agreeing with his fellow councillors, Green Party Cllr. Brian Leddin also states that, if there are mental health supports available specifically for our political representatives, he has not been made aware of them.

“I am aware  of politicians who have left politics for mental health reasons. A few of them actually,” Cllr. Leddin adds.

“It’s a very tough road, because you stand on a platform and when you get elected, people realise you stand in a position of power, or a perceived position of power. They think you can do things for them and help them with things and you want to as an elected representative, but that doesn’t mean you can,” the Green Party councillor continues.

Cllr. Elisa O’Donovan also speaks about how responsibilities specific to being a Councillor can affect their mental health.

“Just because of the very nature of our jobs, we are vulnerable to mental health issues,” she states.

“You’re hearing stories of people in crisis, you’re hearing of people who are homeless with young children, you’re hearing about people going through suicide. You’re hearing about people who are impacted by drug abuse and alcohol abuse,” the Social Democrats Councillor continues.

“We’re dealing with peoples’ lives every day and that should be supported. Councillors should have access to free counselling at the very least.

“I can understand why some politicians build up a kind of wall and they are not so empathetic, they lose that empathy. When you’re listening to this day to day, you do anything to protect your own mental health.

“Traditionally with politics in Ireland, [councillors] have been used as punching bags, dealing with people in emotional distress and social distress, and they have just built up a complete wall. I never want that to happen to me,” Cllr. Elisa continues.

Cllr. Brian Leddin also referenced how social media can add to councillors’ mental health struggles.

“Social media is constant. I turn my notifications off and my phone’s always on silent. That’s how I deal with it.

“That’s not to say people haven’t contacted me very late at night, very early in the morning, irritated and demanding and aggressive sometimes,” Cllr. Leddin continues.

Speaking of mental health services in general, Cllr. Secas believes more needs to be done.

“There is always room for improvement. Funding needs to be made available. I don’t think there’s enough money at the moment for mental health services,” Secas states.

Social Democrats’ Councillor Elisa O’Donovan highlights ways Limerick city can be improved to benefit people’s mental health.

“People like having social spaces where they can meet. I think that’s a huge thing in the city. There’s a huge lack of social spaces for people to meet. I think a lot of people are isolated and I think a lot of people are lonely.

“For me, I think that’s where the conversation needs to go. It’s not constantly the lack of services but actually that we need to create space for people who are feeling lonely and are in distress. That’s very doable.

“I plan to put in a motion that we will make Limerick a mental health friendly city,” Cllr. O’Donovan adds.

Cllr. Brian Leddin also believes improvements to Limerick city could benefit mental health.

“The city has an indirect role in terms of providing services such as a good bus service or parks, and these things do actually have a knock on effect in helping people’s mental health,” Cllr. Leddin shares.

In a statement made to Limerick Voice, Limerick City and County Council explains it “operates a confidential Employee Assistance Programme, which offers support and guidance on a number of issues including mental health. Councillors are entitled to avail of this service”.

While Councillors are entitled to use this service, it is not specifically tailored to them. This service does not apply to TDs as they are not part of the local government structure.

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