The Starling

I was walking home today and a man in the passenger seat of a car rolled down his window and shouted something mean-spirited at me. In times past, when I was shackled with depression, I would have taken this very poorly indeed. Likely, I’d have gone home and fixated on it for hours, if not days, convinced that this ill sentiment toward me must be shared universally. The man who shouted at me has doubtlessly forgotten that I even exist, but had I been feeling a bit more vulnerable today, his seemingly inconsequential action could have had a detrimental effect on my mental well-being.

Now imagine if I’d been really, seriously suffering today and this man’s lack of compassion had tipped me over the edge. His actions could have had irreversible consequences. Worse again, imagine I’d been a lone woman, naked and vulnerable, in the throes of a mental breakdown and the man in question had been a member of the Gardai, and instead of merely shouting, he’d taken the footage of my terrible ordeal and shown it to all his friends. Then imagine that these friends, members of the public service ostensibly designed to protect and serve vulnerable members of society, had allowed these images to make their way online, doing untold damage to an already fragile mind. Except, you don’t have to imagine it, because it actually fucking happened and now a woman is dead.

Dara Quigley’s death is shocking and tragic, offering a bleak illumination of some oft-ignored societal ills. For all the supposed advocacy, the celebrity soundbites and the constant stream of discussion on mental health, the mentally ill in this country will continue to suffer because a basic, societal empathy is largely absent. The widespread understanding of mental illness refuses to develop beyond a narrow, diluted picture of relatively straightforward sadness. Compassion is employed up to a point, but when the behaviour of a mentally ill person becomes too striking, or even just inconvenient, we revert to the freak show mentality. We point and laugh. Obvious cries for help, serious manic episodes, are discarded as the behaviour of raving lunatics, beyond saving.

Worse yet is the sort of institutional boys club culture that will happily value a sick thrill above the health and safety of another human being, particularly one who is so clearly suffering. The man who shared the video initially may have been the instigator, but those in the WhatsApp group who allowed the footage to exist, and spread, without immediately acting to intervene, are culpable too. So too those who watched the video elsewhere and did nothing. It’s a damning insight into our collective lack of empathy and a worrying symptom of a desensitized society. Even as the story spreads online, our national media seems reluctant to highlight such a sickening case of Gardai malpractice.

It happens often, the mockery, we just don’t notice because the outcome isn’t so immediately tragic in the way that Dara Quigley’s death has been. When someone acts out, they are routinely dismissed as eccentric, attention-seeking or hysterical. The desire to understand isn’t present, instead there’s a shallow desire to appear understanding. This self-preserving image of compassion is cultivated, online and elsewhere, but genuine empathy is being corroded. I’ve seen people portray themselves as advocates when it suits them, then go on to viciously mock an obviously unwell Sinead O’Connor. The narrative surrounding mental illness in Ireland is dangerously narrow. We’re fine when someone just needs to talk and everyone loves it when some celebrity sells exercise as a panacea, but when the stakes are raised and things grow too uncomfortable for us, we shun the mentally ill. When an unwell woman walks naked down the streets of our capital city, she can expect ignorance at best and cruelty at worst.

Someday the man who amplified Dara Quigley’s suffering will come face-to-face with the mental anguish of someone close to him. A friend or family member, maybe even one of his own children, because mental illness is never far from any of our doors. When that day comes I hope it cuts him. I hope it cuts him deep, because he’ll look on back on the day he hurt Dara, instead of helping her, and maybe he’ll realise that his actions have contributed directly to an uncaring, borderline malicious society that doesn’t only ignore the mentally ill, but openly treats them with utter contempt.

“Our economy and society is modeled on the behaviour of pigeons, survival of the fittest, everybody out for themselves. The reality is more complex and beautiful than this regime can possibly imagine. In reality, we are more like a flock of starlings, producing intricate, amazing patterns all arising from one fundamental rule: no one bird is allowed to get lost. This is the type of society I want to see, where no one person is allowed to fall between the cracks, nobody gets lost and no person is homeless.” – Dara Quigley