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.
A second theory is that paternal age during the Great Hunger contributed to a higher rate of schizophrenia. Patrick Tracey, an Irish American who lost two sisters to schizophrenia, visited Ireland to find out why schizophrenia was so prevalent in his family. During the 19th century, while Ireland was still under British colonialism, corrupt property laws made it financially inadvisable for a man to marry before inheriting land from his parents. Therefore, he would wait to marry until his parents died, which was sometimes up until his 50s. Then, he would find the youngest girl of age in the surrounding area to marry. The combination of the disparity in age and the increase in sperm mutations as age increases possibly contributed to a spike in schizophrenia. If increased paternal age caused higher rates of schizophrenia, it likely caused higher rates of other mental illness as well.
The final theory is one that I surmised based on the research that I gathered. The Irish have a tendency to suppress issues within themselves and the family so as to seem more “normal.” In Maureen Dezell’s Coming into Clover, she comments on how it is common practice to talk about other families and the issues they’re suffering through, but never to bring up the family’s own problems. Patrick Tracey says that the Irish will say that someone is “away with the fairies” if they are suffering from a mental illness as a way to make light of the situation. If someone is told time and again that their mental illness isn’t an issue and shouldn’t be talked about, they’ll eventually come to believe it. Lauren O’Brien, a clinical social worker for the Emerald Isle Immigration Center, says that in 2012 Irish American suicides were on the rise in New York, particularly due to job loss during the Recession and illegal immigration status. The Irish who emigrate to America believe that they have to be 100 percent successful, and if they’re not, they’re a failure. Therefore, the multitudes of Irish who lost their employment during the recession felt increased pressure to be successful, which turned to depression. Because it’s within their culture to not ask for help, their depression would worsen more and more until it led to suicide. A further pressure mounts if the immigrant is undocumented. Particularly in the current administration, undocumented immigrants are feeling that there is nowhere to turn if they need help. O’Brien wants all Irish immigrants, documented or undocumented, to know that they are welcome at the EIIC to receive consulting services, free of charge. They’ll even meet you in a mutual location if you’re concerned of being seen walking into the EIIC. To all Irish Americans, and those of Irish descent who may be reading this, please know that you do not need to hide if you need help. There is no shame in asking for help, and there will always be someone there to help you.