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Stress and distress in public life

The media is obsessed with focusing on the public lives of people who we all know and sometimes envy for the glamour that seems to surround their lives. But there is another side to being a public figure – a side that is often hidden from public scrutiny as it should be. The private lives of political and business leaders is often characterised by the same kind of stressful circumstances that most of us experience on a daily basis.

Whenever I find the time I listen to live broadcasts of Irish radio programmes transmitted via the internet. One of my favourite programmes is Newstalk presented on Radio 2FM. Recently Newstalk carried an interview with Tom Lenihan, the 22-year-old son of former Irish finance minister Brian Lenihan who died of pancreatic cancer aged 52 in June 2011.

I had followed the travails in Brian’s Lenihan’s public life when between 2008 and 2011 he had to steer his country out of the financial crisis that had brought Ireland to its knees. Like many, I was moved by the humiliations that Brian suffered at the hands of the troika of EU-IMF-ECB officials dictating the terms for the Irish rescue package. In the space of 14 months Lenihan had to present three austerity budgets that made him a hate figure in the eyes of millions of Irish people.

Now Brian Lenihan’s son Tom says: “Coming up to the budgets, dad would have been very sympathetic with those that faced the cuts. He would have lost sleep. He would have shed tears over it. It is just so awful; you are balancing two things that are just impossible moral choices.” Tom also spoke about his father’s battle with cancer and the physical deterioration it wrought on his body at a time when the duties of public office made the biggest demands on him.

Lenihan was not just defending the memory of his father as most sons would do. He is facing a colossal challenge of his own. Tom, who is the president of Trinity College Student Union, is fighting a battle of his own: he is recovering from a depression that has led him to have suicidal thoughts on more than one occasion.

The whole subject of depression is taboo for most people and it takes the courage of a young man like Lenihan to bring to the attention of the media and public opinion the distress that this common medical condition brings to so many people and their families.

Depression and other mental health problems have always been with us

“The hardest thing for me in my life, I think, was to tell my Dad I had depression. I didn’t know how he would react and, I suppose, I didn’t want to break his heart.”

The young Lenihan told the Newstalk reporter: “My father broke down in tears when I told him about my depression. When he was in office the biggest crisis was me because he didn’t have the answers for it.”

Young Tom struggled with alcohol when he entered college to study politics and history. He was also caught cheating in a third-year exam after bringing a note into the examination hall. He was on medication. He is now determined “to speak about his difficulties with depression to raise awareness about the problems and help de-stigmatise the issue”.

In our society there are many damaged people who have a low tolerance to stress. For such people stress often turns into distress. These vulnerable people are often afraid to acknowledge that they have a problem coping with the pressures of life even if their workmates, bosses, family and friends often know that they are not functioning normally. They try to help, but personality disorders often call for expert intervention.

Depression and other mental health problems have always been with us. It is important to emphasise that people suffering from such conditions can often recover well enough to lead a normal life. But we need to create more awareness about these debilitating conditions.

We also need to promote a culture of tolerance in our media when reporting on the lives of our public leaders because they are often afflicted by the same heart-breaking challenges that most of us face from time to time in our private lives.

When the spotlights are switched off most public figures have to manage the same debilitating effects of being human. At some point in our lives stress can easily turn into distress.

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