Every one of us has a role to play in helping to stop the rise of suicide. “Everybody in society should be involved in ensuring that this is dealt with.”
This was a message at the heart of a seminar on Friday in Butler House to mark World Suicide Prevention Day and Suicide Awareness Week.
It was all the more poignant, said Mayor Seán Ó hArgáin, as several people in County Kilkenny have taken their own lives in recent weeks.
Much of the message was about how to stop the spread of suicide, what signs to be aware of loved ones who may be crying out for help, and steps that can be taken by the state and by individuals to reach out to those who may be on the brink of suicide.
The day also saw the start of a consultation process to make a suicide prevention strategy for the county, and the mayor proposed to host a debate within Kilkenny Borough Council to contribute ideas to the strategy.
To begin Friday’s event, he lit a candle of remembrance for those who have died by suicide and their grieving family and friends.
Calling suicide “the most serious issue of our generation,” the mayor said that “we need to alert people that, if they feel suicidal or hopelessness, there is an alternative and people are there to help.”
One major problem, he said, is the breakdown of services for people at risk once they reach the age of 18 – “very often in the most vulnerable stage of their lives.”
He also spoke of the role that education can play. For example, social, personal and health education has been added to the curriculum, but there is still a widespread issue of bullying, in particular homophobic bullying. And teaching strategies for well-being should begin in primary school, he said.
In order for the general public to play their part, first there has to be a greater understanding of suicide, said keynote speaker Dan Neville, a Limerick TD who is president of the Irish Association of Suicidology.
Ireland has the fourth-highest rate of youth suicide in the EU, he said. “But do we recognise and understand and pay attention to the difficulties that young people have a present in society and how it manifests itself in the social and medical issues around that?”
“Everyone wants to know why, and that is not possible to fully answer,” he said.
There are, however, some factors that have a strong correlation with suicide, he noted, such as alcohol consumption, the expectation for men to “be a man” and to “have a stiff upper lip,” and the damage that unemployment does to mental health.
“I was made redundant once, in the 1980s, after being employed for 23 years,” he said. “I was out of work for two and a half years and that was a terrible place to be.”
There are groups with a high risk of suicide, Deputy Neville said, including psychological patients, particularly in the time after being discharged from treatment; people with a history of self-harm; alcoholics; and doctors, farmers and veterinarians, all who would have the means at hand.
There are warning signs that someone could be at risk of suicide, such as being withdrawn, having a definite idea of how they would carry it out, speaking of tidying up their affairs, and having feelings of isolation and loneliness.
But there are also myths around the subject that often stop people from reaching out to those who are struggling with depression and anxiety.
It isn’t true that people who talk about it don’t die by suicide, he said, as “most people give definite warning signs.”
It isn’t true that suicidal people are intent about dying –“most are ambivalent.”
It isn’t true that they don’t want to live – “they think they know no other way of removing the pain they are suffering”
It isn’t true that once a person is suicidal, he or she will always feel that way, Deputy Neville said.
Nor is it true that people are either suicidal or not. “It can happen to anybody,” he said.
“We are all down sometimes – life is not easy – but if you are down more than two or three weeks around that period then alarm bells should ring.”
Too often, people are afraid to seek help, Deputy Neville said, referring to a conversation he once had with a young man who was feeling depressed. “I said, ‘Did you go to a counsellor at your college and talk to them about how you’re feeling?’ and he said, ‘No, because I’ll be seen going in.’ So I asked him if he had gone to Dublin to get help and he said, ‘Then I would be self-labelling myself’.”
“We judge people who are suffering from mental illness, and it stops people from seeking help and getting support,” he said.
The subject is even kept behind closed doors for those bereaved by suicide, Deputy Neville said.
“In the 1940s tuberculosis was the big stigma – you did not go to a house where somebody had TB. Then it was cancer,” he said. Even when his own father died of cancer, “my mother said, ‘Don’t tell anyone it’s cancer.’ But because the stigma has been removed, we now demand services for cancer. Why don’t we demand services for mental health? Can I put it simply? Why didn’t we get the services for mental health from the state over the decades? Because there are no votes in it.”
In order to get better services for mental health, he said, people will have to stand up and demand it.