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David O'Brien protesting against mental health budget cuts outside city hall on May 23, 2016.
David O'Brien protesting against mental health budget cuts outside city hall on May 23, 2016.
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Marching my way to better mental health

LONG before he was marching for change on the streets of his home city, shoulder to shoulder with fellow protesters, David O’Brien was fighting a battle with depression and anxiety in solitude.

Now a citizen activist fighting for a myriad of causes, the young Cork man has discovered confidence and a powerful will to live.

“The more I went to protests and got my voice out there, the more confident I became,” says David, smiling.

He is part of a growing trend in Cork called ‘citizen activism’. The 2014 anti-water charges protests in Cork were the start of his activist life. He says he saw people who had never been involved in any activism, passionately participating in the water charges movement, the success of which had made him realise the power of solidarity among ordinary citizens.

As someone who has suffered from severe social anxiety and other mental health issues, he is determined to fight for the rights of people like himself. David believes marches in support of people with mental health problems have helped to erase the stigma of mental illness in the community.

He recollects the recent recession, when the rates of suicide and depression were high and people still treated mental illness as a taboo subject. He believes this has hugely changed, partly due to the efforts of citizen activists like himself, through awareness marches like the Darkness into Light in which 20,000 Corkonians participated this year.

Sile Walsh, a Cork-based coaching psychologist and author of the book Self-Care: An Authentic Journey, believes that activism could be an effective alternative to drug therapy for people who are suffering from mental health issues.

“Activism facilitates purpose, expression, passion and a person’s ability to engage with others. All of which support mental health recovery and resilience,” says Walsh.

Bairbre Flood right, at the World Refugee Day event on June 20, 2017 , Photograph by Ger Kavangh
Bairbre Flood right, at the World Refugee Day event on June 20, 2017 , Photograph by Ger Kavangh

Although he was recently elected as the Vice-Chairperson with UCC’s Students for Sensible Drug Policy Society (SSDP), David still experiences social anxiety from time to time.

The disorder affects nearly 1 in 8 Irish adults and Walsh believes “difficult life experiences or fear of being judged” are the primary instigators, although she agrees that the causes of this “complex” disease can be varied depending on individuals’ history.

Bairbre Flood is another Cork resident who has taken the initiative of making a change in the community. Having a Masters degree in Journalism, she says she has always been interested in human rights issues.

She was arrested and fined for “obstructing Irish Water staff from carrying out their work” by taking part in a protest against the installation of Irish Water meters in Cork and believes in the power of citizen activism more than ever.

“I realised that there is a difference between the political level and what they could do and what groups in the community can do. Groups can do so much concerning fundraising and raising awareness,” says Bairbre.

She feels the positive impact of activism on her daily life as well. 

“You’d go crazy if you didn’t have something to make you feel like you are helping to create a better society for the future generations,” says the 41-year-old citizen activist.

However, she believes getting involved in too many campaigns can be exhausting and might negatively affect a person’s family and professional life.

Fighting for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers is the cause Bairbre is most passionate about at the moment. Anti-Deportation Ireland (ADI) and Cork Welcomes Refugees are groups dedicated to improving life quality of individuals who have fled war-torn countries, by fund-raising and creating awareness. These groups receive support from many citizen activists including Bairbre.

She is also concerned with the rise of nationalist groups in Cork and the citizen activists who choose to promote such causes. 

“I’m proud of my country and people. I love living here. But I think we should open our eyes a little bit and think more globally.”

Bairbre refers to calls for an ‘Irexit’ by a Cork group called the People’s Convention, which set fire to the European Union flag recently.

David O'Brien holding an anti-water charges banner at a protest on Patrick's Street on November 29, 2014.
David O'Brien holding an anti-water charges banner at a protest on Patrick's Street on November 29, 2014.

There are dozens of active Cork groups dedicated to making a change in society. Cork Feminist Collective fights for a myriad of causes — from abortion rights to refugee crisis — UCC’s SSDP demands more progressive drug policies, and groups like Stand By Me Cork are committed to fighting for the rights of people with mental issues.

All those groups are substantially dependent on the support of concerned Cork residents who feel responsible for creating the change they would like to witness in the community.

David starts his second year in college this September. He is studying Social Science in UCC, a path he decided to pursue after getting involved in campaigns and becoming a citizen activist.

Bairbre will be back in court in November to appeal her conviction in the water charges case.

She has also been motivated to make a radio documentary to raise awareness about the religion of Islam, taking her fight for the rights of Muslim refugees to another level.

Both David and Bairbre agree that the growing number of concerned citizens in the community is lifting up the spirits of their dear Cork.