Harvey Wasserman on Ireland's relationship to mental health

In a comfortable office overlooking the Spanish Arch in Galway, Prof. Harvey Wasserman runs a busy practice that draws on decades of experience in psychiatry, psychotherapy, and many other healing modalities. Harvey originally came to Ireland in the early 90s on a holiday and eventually ended up settling here. His experiences working therapeutically in the US and with people from around the world have given him a unique vista on the landscape of the Irish psyche.

‘I was a professor at Yale, and I had a lot of free time. And I had a good income. So I went travelling around the US at first, and then around the world working with anyone and everyone I thought was interesting. And then I started travelling to New Guinea and Africa studying with native healers. My policy was to study with anyone who had something to teach me. Sometimes it was a waste of time, and sometimes it was wonderful. I have been based in Ireland since 1992. I retired in 1992 and bought a vacation home, and then I got bored and in 1993 set up an office.’

‘Over the past 20 years I’ve found that attitudes to mental health in Ireland have changed a bit, but there is still a long way to go. For the most part, Irish men are blind to emotions, and a lot of Irish women are too. I find that people are very afraid to share their most intimate self. I remember doing a series of public workshops when I first came here, and as part of the workshop we did some exercises and meditations – this was an experiential element where we tried to invoke some emotions. After one particular exercise, which often makes people feel joy, I asked people to raise their hand if they felt joy. Around six months later I got a letter from a woman who had been at the workshop, who wanted to say that she had experienced joy but she had been embarrassed to admit it. That blew my mind. To be afraid to say that you felt joy was a new one for me, but she had great guilt around it.’

‘The history of Ireland is very painful. For several hundred years the Irish were treated the same way that black people in the United States were. After that the church was also very repressive about emotions and dealing with emotions. And then there was the famine, and the TB epidemic. There was so much pain in Ireland that just to survive people had to contain it, and get it under control.’

‘On a day to day basis in my practice, I try to bypass that logical or analytical barrier that we keep our emotions behind by asking people to do things, to give them experiences. It is an exaggeration but there is some truth to the statement that the intellect is the enemy of psychotherapy. The purpose of the intellect is to maintain the status quo, even when the status quo is unpleasant. By giving people experiences and making them aware of what they do, you can make them aware of their defences. If you give them an emotional experience and they try to run away from it, you try to make them aware of it. Some people are so committed that you will never succeed but with most people you can make progress.’

‘Why that block on emotions tends to be focused primarily in men in Ireland in another story. When I see couples with marital problems it is almost always the same case - the guy is a nice guy, he supports his wife well, doesn’t treat her unkindly, and takes her on vacation… but he doesn’t understand why she is not happy so he is mad at her. She has stopped having sex and she is miserable. So they fight about who is right and who is wrong. But what she really feels is that she doesn’t have a friend, she doesn’t have someone to talk to. If she has someone it is usually another female friend. What she wants is somebody with whom she can share. She wants to share what happens to her during the day, she wants to talk about what makes her proud, and what makes her sad, and what makes her frightened - she wants to have discussions about what life is all about. She wants to have very real conversations.’

‘Men tend to want to distance themselves from emotion. It’s not true of all Irish men but it is true of the vast majority. If you watch their conversations you see that they very rarely have friends with which they can talk about very personal things. Instead they talk about sports, or alcohol, or politics, or some special hobby. They feel comfortable in that atmosphere. This is true of men elsewhere too, but it is not as pervasive as it is here.’

‘One lady came a long distance to see me because she was having trouble with her relationship. She felt depressed and the depression was because she felt she had no marriage, she had no friend, and she didn’t know what to do about it. So I asked her to bring her husband along, and when I saw them interact - it was exactly what I was talking about. I spoke to the husband alone and said it seemed like she needs someone she can talk to from her heart and her soul, and from the depth of her feelings and she doesn’t have that with you that is why she is depressed. And if that doesn’t change then she is going to get more depressed, or she will get sick, or she will leave you. And I will never forget his reaction to this. He pounded on my desk, each word punctuated by a thud – ‘I. Will. Not. Change’ - and that was the end. He wasn’t kidding.’

‘I have had Irish men say that emotions are weaknesses, and that they want nothing to do with them. They are not weaknesses they are part of your DNA and biological heritage and if you don’t handle them well they can harm you. When I first got here, the whole culture was beginning to change. Before that there were very controlled rules on how you behave. I think now there are fewer institutions and fewer rules, and in that interim, people can lose a sense of identity.’

‘People in Ireland are very interested in Native Americans. I think that they identify with the oppression. Native American tribes were horrendously treated, they were murdered, and they had their children taken away from them. There is great shame around the treatment of the Natives. I recently wrote a piece for a newspaper in Galway on the Zuni people, a Native American tribe, and the high rate of suicide in their young men. The problem they faced is that they couldn’t live in their traditional way anymore. They couldn’t live off a hunter gatherer society. They were constantly being bombarded by western cultural norms - a culture that they didn’t fit into. So they were nowhere, they had no sense of identity, or sense of where they were going. The girls in that society fared better because they could still fulfil a role as mothers, but the men were lost with no culture  to tell them what being a boy or being a man was about. And that is happening more here. This is a very difficult and crucial time.’

‘We need to remember that emotional problems are very complex issues. Science is constantly learning new things about reality. It was thought that genetics was quite a rigid thing but it turns out that is not quite true. Environmental issues and other experiences can be inherited. So the causes of emotional problems are multiple, but the solution cannot come about through ignoring them. I think people are slowly opening up more to the idea of talking about their problems, rather than denying them.’

About the author: 

Professor Harvey Wasserman was born and raised in New York City. He completed his psychiatric training at the Menninger Foundation, Topeka, Kansas, where he was awarded a Fellowship in Psychiatry and served as Lecturer in Psychiatry at Kansas University College of Medicine. In addition to 36 years in the private practice of psychiatry, he served as Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, at Yale from 1966 to 1981. He has given lectures and workshops around the world. He has studied many forms of psychotherapy and healing, from bioenergetic analysis to traditional Chinese medicine. He has had extensive anthropological contact with tribal peoples and native healers all over the world. He currently practices psychotherapy in Galway.

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