Joining together to tackle rural isolation

It’s an oft-quoted statistic that more people die by suicide each year in Ireland than in car crashes.

It’s an oft-quoted statistic that more people die by suicide each year in Ireland than in car crashes.

And just as public awareness campaigns have helped to lower the annual level of road deaths, so are others trying to prevent such loss of life through suicide.

Locally, to mark World Suicide Prevention Day, Lifeline Kilkenny is hosting a morning information and awareness seminar on September 9 from 9.30am to 1pm in Butler House, Kilkenny.

Under the theme of ‘Developing Community Resilience and Understanding’, the gathering will hear from speakers on topics such as mental health among ethnic minorities, managing one’s own mental health and dealing with bereavement.

One of the speakers, Seamus Boland of Irish Rural Link, will be discussing ‘Rural Isolation and Loss of Rural Services – Impact on Single Older Men’, and in advance of the event he gave some insight into the kind of issues involved.

He began by addressing the question of just how widespread the occurrence of isolation is of single older men in rural Ireland.

“According to President McAleese, when announcing the GAA initiative to combat rural isolation as experienced by men, it is a growing problem. She states: ‘If we look at the suicide statistics, we know that the older men over 65 years of age are the second most at-risk group to suicide. That tells us a lot about the loneliness, the lack of social engagement and the lack of connectedness that they are experiencing’,” Mr Boland said.

“Historically the problem has been with us throughout all of the last century, especially in times of high recession where the migration of young people from rural areas was at its highest,” he added. “We are now facing a period of a rising older population which will increase significantly the population of older single men in rural areas.”

He also pointed to studies showing that the total older population in Ireland is in the region of 12% to 15% with projections of it rising to 25% by the mid-2020s.

“Of that, the single male population is somewhere in the region of less than 40% of that figure, but growing,” he noted. “The numbers are well balanced at that average around the country, but surprisingly there is a higher concentration the South and Eastern area.”

Isolation is often more of a problem for older men than older women, because “women tend to socialise and network with each other much better than men. They tend to continue participation in a variety of social groups ranging from ICA groups to single-hobby informal groups,” Mr Boland said. “Men depend on the local pub, sports-based groups and little else.”

The sight of rural post offices closing around Ireland and removing this focal point of rural life – and the associated social element – has caused worry in many a community in recent years, and it isn’t just post offices that are at risk of being lost.

“Dangers to rural transport, village shops, the local mart and the local pub are now very real. The overall cost of services to rural areas is prompting numerous reviews of all public and private services,” Mr Boland said.

Yet, in a time of spending cuts and centralisation of services, there is the question: Can cuts in services in rural areas can be avoided?

“Only if the political will is there,” Mr Boland said. “In terms of money, the cost can be allayed by a proper use of existing funds, including the money available through the European Rural Development programme.”

That’s not to say the issue of rural isolation among older men is not being addressed. Several local community halls and groups have formed social groups for men, for example.

“The hall programmes around the country are significant and should be built on,” Mr Boland said. “There is a need to enhance existing community activities, so that there is a role for older men. The current Neighbourhood Watch and Community Alert programmes could also be developed to include activities that would encourage men’s participation.”

With many people moving to urban areas – or emigrating – there remains a question mark over how rural communities will sustain themselves into the future and how they will be supported by policymakers.

“IRL has always promoted the need for sustainable rural communities. That means the directing of policies that strengthen local employment, strengthen the local villages and related services,” Mr Boland pointed out.

“The alternative is to design policies that are strictly based on the short-term correction of the public finances. The automatic outcome of such a policy is that almost all services will be cut or abolished. The Bord Snip report recommended cuts in the rural transport services – despite the fact that the service provides a definite need. Similar proposal are likely to be proposed, therefore threatening the viability of rural areas.”

It is vital, he said, “that existing organisations in rural areas begin a process of designing programmes that will include all sections of the community. To do this it will be necessary to develop leadership training initiatives that are available to all ages. It will also be necessary to develop essential tool kits in terms of householder requirements in rural areas. This includes available broadband, local employment initiatives, community-based plans which incorporate the social and economic needs of the area.”

“Most of the funding to do this exists,” he said. “However, it needs to be directed properly.”

For more information about the Lifeline Kilkenny seminar, contact Ossory Youth on 056 7761200, email or see