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When suicide beckons what can a friend do to stop it? Dreadful dilemma as Irish prevention services slow to act

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Suicide is still a taboo subject in Ireland

It should come as little surprise that the stigma attached to mental health is still stopping people accessing the necessary support, according to a survey released as part of Suicide Awareness Week.

However, knowing where to look for help can be just as big a barrier as any associated stigma.

I learnt this the hard way when I heard two words I will never forget.

At the other end of the phone line was a friend who had called me in a state of panic. He could barely get the words “attempting suicide” out of his mouth. Someone close to him was self-harming and in dire need of help.

With suicide being so prevalent in Ireland I wondered why this person whom I knew, but was not so close to personally, was calling me when his loved one was in need of urgent help.

When I began frantically making phone calls trying to help I found out why.

While he was on the other line telling me he had rang several hospitals, I used my landline to dial the Mater.

I was transferred several times before I was put through to A&E. The nurse who answered told me to tell the person to come in, take a ticket and wait for the psychiatrist on duty who would then assess the patient.

I immediately wondered, with little time to spare, how long that would take. So, I then decided to ring any psychiatrist that would answer the phone and ask if they could help.

Despite the urgent nature of my request, the earliest appointment I could get was in two weeks. They told me if it was urgent to go to A&E.

Luckily, through a close contact, a professional thankfully gave us advice to cope in the short term and saw the person who was in desperate need the very next day. They are now receiving the necessary help and support to help them on the road to recovery.

However, it appears when people are confronted with such a nightmare situation there seems to be little to help or guide them. In a country where such situations are sadly arising more frequently this is a disgrace.

The problem when someone is self-harming is that it falls between two stools — medical and mental health. The problem for the person left trying to cope is there is no clear course of action, because it is not something we openly discuss or are educated about.

Suicide is sadly still a taboo subject in Ireland, because for a people that love to talk, the last thing many of us want to discuss is our mental health.

While 186 people were killed on our roads in 2011, the latest official statistics show there were 525 deaths by suicide last year.

And even though suicide in Ireland can only be described as an epidemic, there seems scant support for those contemplating taking their own life.

Indeed, if we invested as much energy into suicide prevention as we do curbing fatalities on our roads the figures would be far lower.

While Suicide Awareness Week, which comes to an end on September 17, is certainly helping to raise awareness, the dialogue must continue.

Because, the fact is, if we remain silent when it comes to suicide any services provided by the health service, while much welcomed, will ultimately be tantamount to the sound of one hand clapping.

Paul Allen is managing director of Paul Allen & Associates.

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