‘Why are our young people killing themselves?’ an older man asked me the other day. Having spent the last twelve years working in the community and running suicide awareness campaigns, I suppose he hoped I’d have a straight forward explanation for him, but I didn’t. That’s because there is no one cause when it comes to suicide. Suicide is complex and demands a deeper look.
There has been a historic underinvestment in mental health services in Ireland. Increased demand and cuts to youth, health and education services have piled pressure onto already struggling support services. Many people looking for help are met with unanswered phones. Costly and rushed GP visits often prioritise prescriptions for anti-depressants over listening and talk therapy. The waiting lists for mental health services can be weeks or months unless you can afford private care. In the absence of better support, all too many medicate their pain by abusing alcohol and drugs. The suffering and isolation is there for all to see in the streets and pubs of Ireland.
A colleague in her twenties described her own experience of seeking help as this:
‘I have been told on numerous times to come back in a month after telling a GP I was feeling suicidal, or been told that I wasn’t feeling suicidal enough. This made me feel worse and stopped me from going back for help when I needed it most. Eventually I ended up in a crisis and was in hospital for two months. This could have been avoided if I had received the support I needed when I needed it. There is very little support for someone who is experiencing severe depression or suicidal thoughts. They are given medication, and little other options. More time to talk would help, but waiting lists are long and often it takes months to be seen which is often too late. There is a shame associated with suffering from depression and it can be difficult to admit to others that you are going through a tough time which means that often the people who you need most are not aware of what you are going through. ‘
Suicide affects all ages and classes but hits those on the margins much harder. Young men, farmers, asylum seekers, and the unemployed are all disproportionately affected. Studies show suicide among the Travelling community is six times the national average and that gay people are seven times more likely to attempt suicide. What’s needed is a more equal, loving and inclusive society that respects all people as well as developing supports based on specific needs. Cultivating a culture where men can talk openly and seek help is critical in all of this.
The tragedy of young people taking their own lives is particularly hard to comprehend. Loneliness, bullying, abuse, depression, unemployment, and growing up gay in a country that hasn’t fully accepted difference can all be factors but not the only ones. Each suicide is different and we may never know the cause. Loved ones are left with pain, confusion and often self-blame.
It could be argued that being young in Ireland today is a suicide risk in itself. Young people are surrounded by negative news and told to prepare for emigration amid a 30% youth unemployment rate (50% in some places). Many of them witness their parents stressed about money and the future. They are groomed by advertisers to see success in terms of unhealthy celebrity lifestyles focused on sex, money and image. The education system locks them into a production line of rote learning with little space to learn about themselves or about life before being catapulted into a visionless society grappling with debt, austerity and climate change.
The challenges of these times are being felt by all ages and it can be hard to find peace between all the pressure and noise. It is no accident that the western world is facing a mental health crisis. Science and technology have brought civilisation to a bold new frontier but many of us are out of sync with the soul. An over emphasis on material growth hasn’t been balanced with the human need for meaning and the desire to be free. It has imprisoned our spirits and left many of us disconnected from our true selves, from each other, and from the natural world around us.
We’ve a long way to go but there are signs of progress as we seek to reclaim our power. The closure of mental institutions, the Amnesty International and See Change anti-stigma campaigns, singer Bressie talking about his mental health struggles, walking therapy groups, and the Slí Eile recovery farm in Cork are examples of moves in the right direction. So too is the growing interest in wellbeing, diet, fitness, yoga, meditation and counselling.
It is possible to prevent suicide but only if we start co-creating a kinder society with a less unjust economy. Just as community campaigning led to political action on road traffic deaths, the same is possible with suicide. Public pressure can lead to funding and to joined up thinking and services but suicide cannot be solved by government alone. It requires a deeper look at root causes and the source of our pain. By offering time, listening and love to those around us, by seeking support when we need it, and demanding the services we deserve, together we can bring healing and hope to Ireland.