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Why can’t they tell us? "The Great Silence" that hovers over suicide

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The silence surrounding mental health and depression is deafening
The silence surrounding mental health and depression is deafening


When it comes to suicide, which disproportionately affects young Irish men, it's becoming clear how pitilessly the twin stigmas of silence and shame have been escorting them one by one to the lonely place outside the limits of Irish civil discourse, with lethal results.

In Ireland we just don't have much patience with requests to step outside our own comfort zones. The emotional lives of young men, when they want to give expression to something more urgent than who won the county match say, seem to unnerve us.

I don't know why we're so discomfited by the inner lives of our sons and brothers, but it's quite clear that past a certain level we clearly are. And we long ago learned to exile the young men who discomfit or unnerve us. Ireland has always had a place to send the luckless and the dependent and the misfits to. It's a place where neither pints nor public house palaver can reach them. There's a communal silence on the edge of every Irish town and it falls hard around them.

What do you do when your society doesn't appear to be able to listen to you? What happens if the conversations and connections that you ache for look like they can never occur? Well, some just muddle on. Others find the experience so bitter they leave and never return. Still others turn their growing despair on themselves.

We let this happen because we can not or will not admit or address the emotional needs of young men. It's been going on for generations, all this, incidentally. It still is.

I have been writing about official silence, of one kind or another, in Irish affairs and Irish public life, for years. Within my own lifetime we have finally started to speak of The Great Hunger, but we still whistle past what I call "The Great Silence."

"The Great Silence" is the habitual Irish response to significant life challenges. We have learned to withdraw, we will wait and see, we hold our tongues, we hope for the best, we let a silence fall. To speak up means to implicate yourself. To speak up can be dangerous.

I'm sure that it's part of a hive mind response common to all violently oppressed former colonies. For centuries we learned to suffer in silence after all, and to endure in silence and to leave in silence (frankly, we still do).

That centuries' deep silence has become a phantom legacy, our most unbroken one at that, handed down all the generations, an unhealed wound. It's easy to learn: whatever you say, say nothing. It's practically part of our DNA by now.

But the thing about silence is that if it goes on too long, it can start to look like shame.

Growing up in a country that was at war and at peace simultaneously, I was fascinated by the disconnects. The nightly news featured violent atrocities but the pubs were full of music and good cheer. To me it was as if one half of the country had never met the other (and this turned out to be largely true).

People, even nations, can learn to cope with trauma by pretending it isn't happening. Our ancestors knew all about magical thinking, we know it too. In Ireland it's become our signature first response to trauma. We have learned that we can always fall back on silence, because it's dependable, and we'll follow that up with shame if you fail to get the message.

Our young men are clearly getting the message. They have been getting the message for decades. We're only just beginning to notice what it's been doing to them.

I have written elsewhere that psychotherapy is something the Irish think you turn to only after booze, confession and prayer all fail. It’s the end of the line, the final admission of failure. Your problems must be insurmountable indeed if you have to see a shrink about them.

But you’d think, given our painful history, that the Irish would have a grander tradition of mental health practices, considering what our ancestors lived through. The Jewish people, also oppressed through the centuries (through the millennia, actually) had the good sense to pioneer and develop psychotherapy. By reflecting on their past they found a way, or many of them did, to make peace with the present.

Ireland hasn't made peace with it's present. Not by a long shot. I do think it's important to remember that in the wider context of our mental health practices and our attitudes toward them.

On IrishCentral we are having a major conversation about suicide this week because Ireland and the Diaspora was startled by the tragic suicide of GAA star Niall Donohue last month.

Donohue did not readily fit the profile many of us apparently carry of a candidate for self-harm. Talented, connected, an elite GAA player, he lived in one of the acknowledged golden circles of Irish life. That's why his passing astounded so many in the Irish sporting community. He had everything to live for, they said.

But something else was happening too. For several days after the news broke, Irish news outlets failed to indicate just how Donohue had died, a tacit admission of our communal discomfort with the issue of suicide and with men's emotional lives generally.

Sadly the silence that fell proved that the issue is still so taboo, so stigmatized, that many of us still cannot bring ourselves to even mention it in print. Few writers have addressed what turmoil may have compelled him to end his life.

But stigma, once it’s internalized, can prevent the vulnerable from speaking out. Stigma can prevent a society from addressing the root causes of suicide too. Those roots can prove elusive, but they are made impossible if the conversation can never occur.

We're afraid of suicide for good reasons, but if we're serious then the silence and that shame over the issue must be broken. If only to prevent the people who most need our help from becoming too ashamed to ask for for it.

Suicide is isolation and failure and desolation and oblivion. It's terrifying. It terrifies us so much because it seems to threaten to take each of us out to that lonely place on the edge of Irish civil discourse, that place outside our own comfort zone that we always know is waiting, and that we want desperately to avoid.

But that's where we'll have to go to find the people who most need our help. They're all still out there, on the margins in every sense. We will have to let them know they matter and that we can hear them.

Read more on our mental health awareness week here. 

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