Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Suicide prevention must be a priority
Suicide knows no boundaries. Neither international borders or class or gender or age protect against it.
This week the Minister for Health in the Executive revealed that there have been 15 suicides in Belfast since July.
Almost every day three families on this island are faced with the devastating news that a family member has died from suicide. In some particularly harrowing circumstances this may the second or third member of a family to die in this way.
Last year 289 people died in the north from suicide. In 2009, the year for which the last full figures are available, 552 died by suicide in the south. That means by the end of this year, 2012, it is almost certain that around 900 citizens will have died by suicide.
Of the 289 who died in the north in 2011, 74 were in Belfast and 216 were male. This would appear to bear out a report in early October by the Office for Suicide Prevention in the south that men in their early 20s and women in their early 50s are at greatest risk.
The overall statistic for the north for suicide is stark and frightening. During the years 1999 to 2009, 2,258 deaths were registered as suicide. In the same period the number registered as having died by suicide in the south was 5385. That means that 7643 Irish citizens died by suicide in a ten year period.
That is a huge number but it is generally accepted that it is an underestimation of the real figures. Prof Kevin Malone of the School of Medicine and Medical Science UCD and St. Vincent’s University Hospital told the Dáil Joint Committee on Health and Children two years ago that a study he carried out into suicide in 23 countries concluded that suicide levels are significantly higher than the official statistics suggest.
International research shows that there is a clear link between areas of disadvantage, poverty and unemployment and suicide. The Minister for Health in the north has said that the death rate by suicide is twice as high in deprived areas.
A pilot study by the National Suicide Research Foundation, published several months ago, looked at 190 deaths in Cork and revealed that almost a third of the suicide victims there worked in the construction and related businesses – the sector most affected by the economic crisis.
But these are not the only causes of suicide. Last weekend 13 year old Erin Gallagher died by suicide. Erin as a second year student at Finn Valley College in Stranorlar in County Donegal, a short distance from her home.
She was the victim of on-line cyber bullying. Her death has left her family distraught and there local community in shock.
It has also frightened countless parents across the island whose children, some as young as 5 and 6, use social media sites like facebook and twitter.
Erin was the second victim of cyber bullies in recent weeks in the south. Another young teenager, 15 year old Ciara Pugsley from Dromahair in county Leitrim took her life in September.
Console which is a state wide suicide prevention agency in the 26 counties has asked anyone affected by these tragedies or who feel vulnerable to contact the service’s 24-hour helpline at freephone 1800 201 890 or access the charity’s services by texting ‘HELP’ to 51444, or at its website: www.console.ie.
There are also many agencies in the north working on suicide prevention, including Lifeline on 08088088000 and the Samaritans on 08457909090 .
The big question is what to do about suicide? There is an abundance of research available – but more is needed. There are resources being made accessible by the governments for counselling services for those at risk as well as for bereaved families. But again more is needed. Too often it has been the bereaved families who have had to take the lead on organising and campaigning.
Last week the head of one suicide prevention agency in the south, Noel Smyth of Turn the Tide of Suicide criticised the government for failing to properly resource mental health services.
Given that three times more citizens die from suicide than are killed on the roads in the south annually Smyth urged the government to establish a Suicide Prevention Agency similar to the Road Safety Authority.
I believe that in these difficult financial times when there is less money available it makes sense to co-ordinate mental health and suicide prevention services across the island. It also makes sense in terms of targeting the worst effected areas and making best use of available resources, experience and personnel.