• The death of Irish singer Sinéad O'Connor is being connected to the PTSD she suffered following sexual and physical abuse as a child

  • She campaigned loudly for women's and children's rights in Ireland and internationally, but found it difficult to find peace in her own life writes Louise Chunn

  • If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health we have therapists who can help

The death of Sinéad O’Connor has been greeted by much sadness and discussion of her vulnerability. Last year her youngest child, 17 year old Shane, had taken his own life, and at the time she had threatened to do likewise. The Metropolitan Police have reported that her death in her flat in south-east London was not suspicious.

O’Connor spoke often of the sexual and physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her emotionally disturbed mother when she was a child, and her parents had divorced. She was eventually sent to a former Magdalen laundry, by then used as a school for young people, where the gift of a guitar from a nun set her on the way to a vocation as a musician.

As columnist Suzanne Moore wrote on Substack “It was her cover of the Prince song Nothing Compares 2 U that sent her stratospheric. That video: her impossibly beautiful face, the tears… it cuts through everything. She was later to say that the tears were for her mother [dead in a car accident when O’Connor was 18], who she didn’t stop crying about for 25 years. Director John Maybury said he could feel the connection coming through his camera, though in between takes she was, apparently, happily listening to dub and smoking spliffs.

“That song catapulted her onto a global stage, which had never really been her aim. Everything about her rejected the label ‘pop star’.”

The ups and downs of her career – from selling 5 million copies of her album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got to effective cancellation in the US after, as a protest against the Vatican covering up child sex abuse in Ireland, she tore up a photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live — meant that she has always been a controversial figure. In a world where record companies wanted girl singers to be feminine and compliant she shaved her head, and had a baby, at 20, before her first album was even released. All through her adult life she campaigned loudly and proudly for women's and children's rights in Ireland and internationally, though she was often reviled because of it.

Will Hodgkinson writing in the Times said that O’Connor did not mourn her American stardom. “It gave people in my private life, or in the music industry, licence to treat me like I was crazy,” she told him in 2021. “But actually it impacted my life for the better because people felt tearing up a picture of the Pope derailed my career when actually having a number one record derailed my career. That wasn’t meant to happen, so I was tearing up my life as a pop star. That allowed me to do the thing I was born for, which was live performance.”

But the story of her relationships and marriages, and the birth of three more children, plus her various religious affiliations and exposing messages on social media do point to her struggles with mental health. At one stage she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but later she talked more about PTSD. She told Simon Hattenstone in The Guardian that she had spent six years in and out of St Patrick’s, a psychiatric hospital in Dublin, and that their treatment had saved her life a number of times. She added, “I’m always going to be a bit of a crazy bitch, but that’s OK.”

When her memoir Rememberings was published, in 2021, she told an American journalist, “I manage my mental health very well because I've been taught brilliant skills. There was a lot of therapy. It's about focusing on the things that bring you peace as opposed to what makes you feel unstable.

"I was so busy surviving [the abuse] that I didn't have time to feel any of the feelings. You learn to live with it, but what helped me live with it was to forgive my mother."

Hodgkinson who had interviewed her three times, wrote today: “The main impression I received was of a woman who was unquestionably damaged and somewhat impetuous, but strong-willed and lucid. She came across as an intelligent, complex woman who felt things deeply, who had spent her entire life searching for a sense of meaning and purpose.” As she put it: “I knew all the fame and money was bollocks.”

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