Let's keep Kate's conversation going

We need to start a proper, public conversation about depression. By Alan Flanagan.

As many of you are probably well aware, the story of my old friend Kate Fitzgerald – who lost her battle with depression at the end of August – resurfaced over the past few days with an article in The Irish Times.

Back in August, Kate had written an anonymous piece (under the typically flair-some pseudonym Grace Ringwood) entitled “Employers failing people with mental health issues”, where she detailed her experience as someone suffering from severe depression while trying to hold down a job. Understandably anonymous, as despite the particular difficulties she was going through she was someone who valued both her work and her sense of professionalism. The problem with this article came a little later, and to a head this past weekend.

You see, by the time Kate’s article was printed on 9 September, she was already dead.

The piece detailed an ongoing struggle with depression, and was especially difficult to read as it was written by a woman capable of communicating coherently and logically about her own pain. It also, as the headline suggests, dealt with the ongoing issue of employers’ treatment of those with mental health issues. The law in Ireland is a little unclear, but Kate’s article detailed a workplace where her time in hospital after a suicide attempt was met with a less than sympathetic response.

In Peter Murtagh’s fantastic piece on Kate a few days ago, he detailed how the printing of this article led to a phone call from her father – who recognised the tone and experience of this anonymous woman as his daughter’s. Kate was already gone, but Murtagh’s piece went some way to explaining and discussing how a young woman with so much talent, potential and warmth was no less susceptible to depression. A fitting tribute to a truly exceptional person. [Updated: Kate's mother Sally Ann Fitzgerald is interviewed by Newstalk's Chris Donoghue on December 1, 2011 here.]

But when the article was printed, and the link back to that original anonymous piece was made, the waters became a little murkier. For in her piece, Kate had made some pretty damning statements about where she worked – and once the link was established questions began to arise about her employer, PR company The Communications Clinic.

Where The Irish Times had made the link, bloggers extraordinaire broadsheet.ie finished the thought with a post entitled “A Breakdown In Communications”. This was, in my opinion, a very powerful piece for discussion, as employment law around the world is so incredibly behind on how to deal with mental health issues – and we are only now beginning to say that things can and should be done. It’s all very well to say that we should speak up about depression, but what good is it when we feel our jobs might be at risk? On Facebook, on Twitter, and on Broadsheet, there was a general feeling that a new type of conversation about mental health might just be beginning. And yet.

I don’t post links to the sterling work that Broadsheet did, because those articles no longer exist. They were removed at some point yesterday, without any explanation.

What’s perhaps more disheartening is that the original piece that Kate wrote has been altered, with any reference to her employers having been removed. Except, unfortunately, the line “I do not blame my employer,” which remains – lacking the context of the original piece.

It’s not hard to see why this happened. Once the anonymity of the original piece was breached some serious questions came up about what this might mean for The Communications Clinic, and no doubt a terse phone call or two was made (either from them or from the IT’s lawyers). Kate’s original article painted a picture of mistakes in how she was treated, as an example of something that is no doubt endemic across Irish workplaces.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that these changes were wrong. Much of my journalistic, legal, and even moral sensibilities say it would have been incorrect to leave accusations out there that could never be truly investigated or necessarily corroborated. But the way in which the details of Kate’s experience have been scrubbed from the record does leave me concerned.

I know it was the experience for me, and for many of Kate’s friends, that these words were some of the truest statements she made about what she was going through – and something of a final word for those of us who never received one before her death.

Things change in journalism, and the internet has provided a permanent record where once loose paper came and went. Sometimes a mistake has to be corrected after the fact. But a discussion about mental health issues was beginning, and has now been hampered by revisions that were addressed by neither The Irish Times nor Broadsheet.

That this happened so quietly is an unfortunate reflection of the media’s ongoing treatment of depression – as an issue to be taken up for a feature some odd Saturday, and dropped just as quickly. When the truth is that mental health issues are part of the fabric of everyday life.

Kate is gone. Gary Speed is gone. And yet today you have a journalist admitting that he hounded a young woman to suicide, expressing the remorse of someone who stole a chocolate biscuit from the corner shop. Because far as we have come, we are still trapped in simplistic ideas of mental health issues.

There is a wider discussion here, and it’s tricky in so many ways because of one big word that Kate herself used: “blame”. Nobody likes to think of there ever being any sense of blame when someone makes the decision to end their own life – and rightly so, as it is a complex mixture of biology, circumstance and chance that leads them there. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be discussing how we treat each other.

If we live in a world where different people are biologically predisposed to reacting in certain ways to stressful situations, do we not have a responsibility to change how that world works?

Is it right to have jobs which are so high stress that people who burn out are blamed for not being able to “cut it”? Is it right to splash the innermost details of an innocent person’s life across tabloids and shout “whoops!” when the damage done becomes irreversible? Is it right that there is no accounting and no compensation for those people who have to work twice as hard just to get out of bed in the morning?

No, it’s not about blame. But it is about a sense of communal responsibility to each other. To be depressed is to have a disability. A barrier that stops you experiencing the world as others would. In other forms, we legislate so that those suffering from disabilities can experience a normal life. But here, we lag behind.

That is the discussion I want to have, and it’s unfortunate that the two steps forward of the past week are being etched away by the revisions of the last 24 hours.

Let’s keep the conversation going.

Update: It’s come to my attention this morning that Broadsheet have reinstated the original articles and included this new one about their reasoning at the time. It’s a welcome development, and an interesting insight into just what led to the editing of the original Irish Times piece and their work. It’s especially heartening to know that Kate’s mother felt so strongly on the subject and actually contacted them directly. I know that this has become a discussion about the actions of The Communications Clinic, but I hope the comments can also begin to provide opinions, solutions and anecdotes around the issue of mental health in the workplace.

Originally published on Parallelvision. Republished with permission. 


Image top: mourner.