By: Michelle Casey

Depression. Alcoholism.  Schizophrenia.  Just a few of the mental illnesses that rage through the Irish American and Irish communities, yet the Irish will barely utter the terms themselves.  Why is it that such a stereotypically cheery and happy lot such as the Irish and Irish Americans suffer so disproportionately from mental illness compared to other ethnic groups?  After some research, I have compiled three potential theories as to why mental illness is so commonplace in the Irish Americans today: The Great Hunger, paternal age tendencies, and the Irish culture itself.

The first theory is certainly the most commonly heard: epigenetic changes that arose from The Great Hunger contribute to higher prevalence of mental illness in the Irish.  Oonagh Walsh, an Irish historian, strongly believes this to be the case, as it is known that both the Irish and the Irish diaspora have significantly higher rates of mental illness than any other ethnic group.  She believes that the nutritional deprivation endured by the Irish during the potato famine of 1845-1852 was so extreme that it caused changes in gene expression that led to a higher likelihood of obtaining mental illness at some point in life.  These genetic changes have now persisted for over a century and a half.  Walsh’s evidence comes from the Irish censuses of 1841 and 1900.  Per the 1841 census, of the eight-million population, 1,600 were committed to asylums and 1,500 were in jails.  Per the 1900 census, of the four-million population, 17,000 were committed to asylums and 8,000 were considered “lunatics at large.”  The numbers indicate a staggering increase in mental illness from before the famine to sometime after.  However, a counterargument to this theory is that a series of “Dangerous Lunatics Acts” enacted during this time period permitted the asylum of anyone considered mentally impaired enough to commit a criminal offense.  These laws were horribly abused during their time, landing many more people in asylums than who actually needed to be there.  Despite this counterargument, this theory is still in the running for a potential reason for the amount of mental illness in the Irish. Continue reading