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Connacht Tribune

Highlighting the power of peer support in mental illness recovery



Peer support can play a crucial part in recovery from mental illness – that’s according to a Galway native who is one of the country’s most respected voices in this field.

Trinity College Professor in Mental Health, Agnes Higgins, reported her findings after carrying out in-depth interviews with 26 people who went through just such a peer support programme with mental health charity GROW.

Those interviewed had

mental health difficulties including bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety and depression.

The research – carried out with Dr Mike Watts – shows that, although medical treatment and mental health professionals can be a vital start to recovery, mental health problems can also be resolved through peer and community support as well as everyday social interactions.

The study showed that while peer support has long been valued in recovery from various addictions it remains an under used strategy within a mental health system that is currently under serious resource pressures.

The research findings and stories have been published as a book entitled Narratives of Recovery from Mental Illness.

Research in mental health has been something Agnes has been involved in for a number of years.

She met her co-author Mike Watts, when he was national coordinator for GROW and he was interested in doing a PhD.

“Given my interest and passion for mental health and the absence of research evidence in the area peer support, we decided that the focus of the PhD should be in this area,” she explained.

And because of the importance of the subject matter, the pair then decided to craft their findings into a book.

Participants in the study described how life experiences such as bullying, abuse, bereavement, isolation or family disharmony led to a slow build-up of distress leading to emotional chaos.

Agnes explains that without someone to listen to and deal with the resultant trauma ‘powerful emotions of terror, rage and despair impacted on each person’s thinking and behaviour’ so they began to mistrust life and became trapped in a spiral of personal isolation and what was termed ‘dialogues of terror’.

The non-hierarchical culture of a peer support group within GROW resulted in people immersing in ‘dialogues of healing’.

“They found themselves developing trust, becoming hopeful, experiencing a sense of personal value and belonging, and the nurturing of the beginnings of personal empowerment,” she said.

She sees the book as offering an alternative way of looking at mental illness and demonstrates many unexplored avenues and paths to recovery that need to be considered.

“The narratives of recovery should also be a source of hope to people struggling with ‘mental illness’ and emotional distress,” she said.

Part of the challenge in transforming mental health services is the lack of evidence-based studies focussing on the process and outcomes of peer support services.

“We hope that it will encourage practitioners to include peer support within the menu of recovery options offered to people with a mental health problem”, Agnes declares.

Agnes Higgins grew up on a farm in Kilmurry, Dunmore, the middle child of seven. She went to national school in Ballinlass and finished secondary school in 1978. Her father, Mick, passed away in 1986 and her mother, Mary, still lives in Kilmurry.

Agnes wanted to be a teacher but she explains that “in those days you applied for lots of things” and she was accepted for the first student nurse position she applied for.

“The people who interviewed me were so welcoming, warm, and kind that I didn’t hesitate for a minute in my decision”, says Agnes. Her nurse training began in 1978 at St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin and she qualified as a mental health nurse in 1981.

Later, Agnes trained as a general nurse and qualified in 1986. From 1990 – 1993 she trained and qualified as a nurse teacher and then went on to do a masters in Dublin City University and a PhD in Trinity College.

In 2000 Agnes was offered a position in the School of Nursing and Midwifery in TCD. Her first role was to develop a postgraduate diploma in clinical health sciences education, “this programme was to educate nurse and midwifery teachers,” she explained.

This work led to Agnes receiving the Provost Award for Teaching Excellence within the college; now, as Professor in Mental Health, she lectures on the subject to Trinity undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Connacht Tribune

Galway’s Golden Girls mark big birthdays!



Two of Galway’s Golden Girls celebrates milestone birthdays on either side of the county this week – racking up a magnificent 210 years between them.

Oughterard’s Phyl Furness celebrated her 107th birthday this week – and Mary O’Leary marked her mere 103rd birthday in Ardrahan!

Phyl, who is originally from Nottinghamshire in England, moved to Ireland in the 1980s – and has been a wonderful part of her Oughterard community ever since.

Mary was born Mary Quinn on May 23 1919 in Ballinlisheen, Tubber, Co. Clare, to John Quinn and Mary Kate McKague. She never saw her father as he passed away before she was born, leaving her an only child.

She attended Boston National School and Gort Secondary School, and from a young age worked on the family farm.

Mary married her husband Joe O’ Leary in Tubber church in 1948.  They lived in Ballinlisheen until Joe passed away in July 1997 – and Mary then moved to Gort town.

She moved to the Little Flower Nursing Home, Labane, Ardrahan, on October 14 2011 where she has enjoyed a very fulfilled few years since.

Mary is an avid reader; she loves thrillers and romance, according to Joan Gardiner Surman, Proprietor of the Little Flower Nursing Home.

“She keeps herself informed by reading the daily paper and loves Hello magazine, she has a huge interest in the Royal family,” she said.

She celebrated her birthday in the Little Flower Nursing Home a day early on Sunday – surrounded by her family, the staff who take such great care of her and all the residents of the Little Flower.

“She received a lovely letter of congratulations from President Michael D. Higgins along with a beautiful commemorative medal,” added Joan.

Photos: Mary O’Leary celebrating her 103rd birthday and (right) Oughterard’s Phyl Furness, who celebrated a magnificent 107th birthday this week.

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Connacht Tribune

Ombudsman hears of 125 allegations against Galway Gardaí



A total of 125 allegations were made against Gardaí in Galway last year, according to a report by Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC).

There were 105 allegations made against Galway Gardaí in 2020, and so the figure of 125 last year represents a yearly increase of 19%.

It is also higher than the figure of 103 allegations in GSOC’s 2019 report.

The increase in complaints made to GSOC about Gardaí in Galway mirrors a national trend. In 2021, according to GSOC, 12% more complaints and allegations were lodged against Gardaí.

Among the most common complaints were neglect of duty, which ranges in seriousness from not returning a phone call or not properly investigating a crime; abuse of authority, which could include excessive force; non-fatal offences, which could include assault; and discourtesy, which relates to the manner in which a Garda spoke or behaved towards a person.

Meanwhile, complaints to the recently appointed Public Service Ombudsman Ger Deering reached a new high of 4,004 last year – a 17% increase on 2020, and the highest ever in the 38-year history of the Ombudsman.

And 208 of these complaints came from people in Galway; 53 were made about Galway County Council and the Ombudsman received 42 about Galway City Council. NUIG was the subject of six complaints.

Two complaints were received about Galway Mayo Institute of Technology while the Galway and Roscommon Education and Training Board was the subject of one complaint.

This is a shortened preview version of this article. To read the rest of the story, see the May 27 edition of the Connacht Tribune. You can buy a digital edition HERE.

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Connacht Tribune

Flexibility needed on designation of Connemara bogs



A Galway senator has called for flexibility to make ‘small local changes’ over the coming years in relation to the SAC designation of the massive Connemara Bog complex.

Senator Seán Kyne told the Connacht Tribune that such flexibility could make a big difference to local families and communities within this SAC (Special Area of Conservation).

“There are a lot of local issues that arise. For example, people from the area can find it difficult to get planning on their own land and allowance could be made for small community projects that mightn’t necessarily tie in with the SAC requirements,” said Seán Kyne.

He said that in cases like those, where a small area could be taken out of the SAC, it should be possible to compensate with the inclusion of another similar sized portion of land on the fringes of the designation.

Senator Kyne – who raised the matter with Minister of State (Local Government) Peter Burke in a recent Seanad debate – said that the size of the Connemara Bog complex site was very large, approximately 50,000 hectares (c. 125,000 acres).

He added that there was a long-running history to the SAC application dating back to 1997 with a lot of appeals to parts of the designation for an area bounded to the north by Galway-Clifden Road (N59) and to the south by the Moycullen-Spiddal road (L1320).

“The Department is engaging in the final signing off of the SAC. I am inquiring in regard to clarification on the appeals. Will there be any future opportunities in regard to appeals?

“I am not talking about large-scale changes. In some cases, there may be a request for some minor changes to the boundaries of the SAC in the future.

“It could be to rectify some issues where there may be mistakes on the mapping, for example, or there could be areas which are commercially sensitive to somebody, and it may make sense to make a slight change in the boundary and that could be compensated elsewhere with the inclusion of another area . . .

“Can there be minor, but perhaps important, changes in the future which would benefit society, the economy and local communities, whether it is a requirement to remove a small piece to allow for a piece of amenity or commercial infrastructure? Clarification on the processes into the future is important,” said Senator Kyne in the Seanad debate.

Minister of State, Peter Burke, said in reply that the criteria used to set the boundaries of the SAC sites were purely scientific as was required in the nature directives.

He said that since the first public notification of the designation back in 1997, there were 60 appeals or objections received – nine of those were successful; 12 were partially successful; 21 were unsuccessful; and 18 were deemed invalid.

“The appeals process for this site has now concluded and the site has moved onto the final stage of the process which requires the publication of a statutory instrument, formally designating the site.

“The statutory instrument includes a description of the site, a detailed map showing the area, a complete list of habitats and species for which the area was selected and a list of activities which require the consent of the Minister before they can be undertaken in a way that affects the site.

“It is important to note that all relevant protections under Irish law apply to the site from the time [1997] it was publicly notified as proposed for designation,” said Minister of State, Peter Burke.

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