Author Sophie White was asked by Claire Byrne why she wrote her article 'I have what she had' – a title that references Deirdre Morely, who was recently found not guilty of the murder of her three children by reason of insanity. Sophie, who was last year diagnosed as suffering from Bipolar II, wanted to highlight the fact that many people with mental health issues – particularly mothers – are faced with more than just a dysfunctional mental health service. And by saying ‘I have what she had’, Sophie wants to show that the conditions that led to tragedy in that case may not be as rare as people might think.
"I suppose I’m saying that I have a similar mental illness. I have a similar trajectory in that I’ve been hospitalised for my mental illness as she was. I’m saying that I have the same broken system that she has and I’m saying that mothers in Ireland have the same broken system. I think that’s what I really wanted to say with ‘I have what she had’, ‘We have what she had’."
By way of stark illustration, Sophie told Claire of an episode from 2018, when she had two children (she now has three) and prior to her Bipolar II diagnosis: the thought occurred to her that she was possessed and that was why she felt and behaved like she did. She managed to put her children to bed and then she locked herself in her room to protect them. It was terrifying, Sophie says. And the nature of mental illness makes it so difficult to deal with:
"Being mentally ill is, it’s just such a prison because you can’t amputate your brain, you can’t kill off the bad bit and keep the good bits of your brain, you’re really stuck with the whole thing."
When she received her diagnosis, Sophie says it was "bizarrely reassuring" because, despite the fear and apprehension that comes with a diagnostic phrase like Bipolar II, she at least had some sort of an explanation for the way she’d been feeling for more than 10 years.
"It was quite reassuring because it was finally giving a name to something that up until then had been very nebulous, quite frightening and so – it’s just, I suppose, it’s quite terrifying not knowing what’s wrong with you. Anyone who’s seeking any kind of medical treatment knows that."
The diagnosis also meant that treatment could be more focused and ultimately, it gave Sophie a little bit of hope. But she warned that we may be becoming a little complacent in Ireland about mental illness and our attitudes to it and its treatment:
"We have done so much great work in terms of mental illness awareness, but I think awareness without action is so dangerous because it’s really letting us off the hook because we say, ‘Well, we’re aware now’."
Underestimating the severity of mental illness is a very dangerous way to go, Sophie says, and this was shown in such devastating fashion by the tragedy that befell the Morley-McGinley family. The major problem, she feels, is that mothers are drastically under-supported by society.
"We ask women to do so much as mothers. We don’t, as a country, I feel, give enough."
The support for mothers is better than it was, but it’s still got a long way to go and politicians shouldn’t look at things that have been put in place and think it’s job done. The Early Childhood Care and Education Scheme (ECCE), for example is a good start, but it needs to be expanded.
"I don’t know if three hours a day, five days a week, for eight months is the incredible childcare solution the government thinks it is."
Sophie believes that it’s not only mental health services that need to be reformed, but the whole system of supports for mothers needs to be significantly bolstered to safeguard against women’s health being degraded.
Sophie White is a vivid and searingly honest guest and you can hear Claire’s full conversation with her by going here.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in this piece, you can find support services here.