Suicide in Ireland, particularly among male teens, is on the rise. Sharon Ní Chonchúir reports.
Few teenagers make a mark on Irish society in the way 16-year-old Tralee native Donal Walsh did. Having battled cancer on three separate occasions, Donal finally succumbed to the disease in May. But before he died, he spread a serious message. He spoke out urging people, especially young people his age, not to commit suicide.
“I was given a timeline on the rest of my life,” wrote Donal in an open letter. “No choice, no say, no matter… I couldn’t believe all I had was 16 years here and I began to pay attention to every detail that was going on in this town. I realized I was fighting for my life for the third time in four years and this time I have no hope. Yet I still hear of young people committing suicide and it makes me feel nothing but anger. I feel angry these people choose to take their lives and here I am with no choice.”
Donal took to the national airwaves with his message and even made a memorable appearance on "The Late Late Show." He’s not the only one to have spoken out about suicide in Ireland either. Irish-American comedian Des Bishop made reference to it in his latest TV documentary "Under the Influence" when he linked Ireland’s high alcohol consumption with high rates of suicide in the country.
But what exactly is the situation with suicide in Ireland? Is it as worrying as both Donal and Des maintain?
In Ireland, approximately 500 people commit suicide every year, a figure that gives us the sixth lowest suicide rate in the EU (Greece has the lowest and Lithuania has the highest).
However, many people who work in the field of mental health believe that suicide figures are underreported and that the true figure for Ireland is likely to be closer to 700 a year.
“That’s two people every day,” says Noel Smyth, Chairman of Turn the Tide of Suicide, “3Ts,” a charity founded in 2003 to raise awareness of the problem of suicide in Ireland and to raise funds for research, educational support and intervention.
“It’s three times the rate of people who die on our roads,” he continues. “We have made dramatic inroads into what used to be described as ‘the carnage on our roads,’ where we have seen young male driving deaths reduced by 50%. This has not been attained by accident. Surely this model can be embraced in our fight against suicide and a dedicated Suicide Prevention Authority can finally begin to turn the tide of suicide.”
In a 3Ts report called Suicide in Ireland published in May this year, Dr. Kevin Malone, a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Mental Health at University College, Dublin, looked at 104 Irish families bereaved through suicide between 2003 and 2008 and found worrying results.
It was already common knowledge that most suicide victims are male, roughly 80%; what people hadn’t realized is how serious the problem was among younger men.
Dr. Malone’s report found that suicide was the leading cause of death for young men in Ireland and that the country was the fourth highest in the EU in the 15-to- 24-year-old age group. By analyzing almost 12,000 suicide deaths in those aged 35 and under, the report identified a four-fold accelerated suicide count up to age 20, leveling off from the age of 21 onwards.
“John B. Keane wrote his famous play 'Many Young Men of Twenty Said Goodbye,' about young men heading off to war,” Dr. Malone says. “Fifty years later, suicide is our war for young men.”
Families interviewed for the report stated a general lack of satisfaction with the treatment given to their loved ones before they died and the services they received in the aftermath of their deaths. Sixty-six percent reported dissatisfaction with health services, 20% with justice services and 8% with education.
Case studies included a family whose son had been “stitched up in A&E, given a month’s prescription and sent home” after trying to commit suicide, and another family with a suicidal youngster being sent to another hospital with a note that read “sorry, not our area.”
For the first time in Ireland, the report also identified the true extent of suicide clusters. “I think this has been previously under-estimated,” says Dr. Malone. “Our findings suggest that up to 50% of our under-18 suicide deaths in Ireland may be part of couplets or clusters. A young suicide is a powerful and destabilizing social force that can reverberate intensely.”
This report isn’t the only worrying recent finding. A 2011 Mental Health Barometer conducted by pharmaceutical firm Lundbeck found that stigma and embarrassment still surround depression in Ireland. Forty-two percent of those interviewed said they would not want someone close to them who is dealing with depression reaching out to them for help, although they did acknowledge that talking and having someone listen is a step towards recovery.