Saturday, February 16, 2008

The grim reality behind that rural retreat

Photo by Jasmic (Flickr)

This is the text of my article in The Evening Herald on 15th February 2008:

The rural retreat, complete with green fields, clear streams and singing birds seems idyllic when you’re stuck in urban traffic in the rain – but behind the pretty picture is a grimmer reality, judging by the latest comments from Dr Moosajee Bhamjee.

The Clare psychiatrist and former Labour Party TD has pointed to the demise of the rural pub and of other social facilities as a factor in suicide in country areas. The close-knit rural community of legend has, for too many people, become a thing of the past.

The link between the demise of the rural pub, depression and suicide is not necessarily to do with alcohol - it is to do with social contact. For men living alone, in particular, the pub provided a nightly or almost nightly immersion the affairs of the parish. It kept them connected. Drinking at home on your own is no substitute.

The concept of loneliness is one we are used to in the cities and towns. A city flat can be a very lonely place. So can a home in an urban housing estate where everybody else is at work all day. But at least in cities and towns you can go for a walk to the shops or to the post office and you can hope to meet somebody with whom you are at least on a nodding acquaintance. And if all else fails you can find a pub to go to at night.

There are still parts of rural Ireland in which there is a closeness between people that you will not find in cities and towns. Everybody living along a stretch of road knows each other; they have known each other for years and they look out for each other.

But if you live on the wrong road, if your nearest neighbours have gone, if you are unable to travel due to disability or if your local pub has shut down you can be utterly isolated in the countryside.

In any event, there is something wrong with the rural dream of the past. City people think of Clare as the quintessential rural county. In many respects I think it fair to say we were encouraged to think of the county of the De Valeras as more "real" than the cities. It was the home of traditional Irish music, of unforgettable sessions in the pubs, of poety, of wonderful natural scenery and of wonderful people.

Perhaps that was true and perhaps it is still true. Yet 17 people are thought to have taken their lives in Clare last year and two thirds of these lived in rural areas. Suicides in Clare outnumbered deaths from road accidents last year.

Six of these deaths were among men in their twenties and three were men in their thirties, forties and fifties. This suggests that suicide in Clare is not predominantly affecting elderly people. It is more likely that isolated, elderly people are prey to depression than to suicide.

More importantly, all of this suggests that the answer to rural depression involves social rather than medical measures. For example, there are roads in rural Ireland which a bus has never ever, ever passed down. If each rural area had an easily-accessible bus service even a couple of times a day the difference to the physical and mental health of rural dwellers would be enormous.

It seems highly unlikely that services like this can be run on a commercial basis. They would have to be subsidised out of taxes and, as far as I am concerned, it would be money well spent.

Meanwhile,though, I am for city and town living. The field and the stream may be attractive -but the lonely country road with the bus once a week definitely is not.

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