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Donal Walsh

Brave Donal Walsh’s death should be a message to Ireland that suicide is never the answer

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Donal Walsh

Too many people in Ireland take their own lives, but one teenager who died last week from cancer begged his country to wake up and deal with the devastating issue. April Drew recounts sad stories about her own friends who have first hand knowledge of suicide and depression.

It was a little after 8 p.m. on a cold and dark Sunday evening. It was the first Sunday of 2009. Christmas was just over and the January blues were setting in all around the world.  

I was sipping tea at my desk in our Bronx apartment and working on the computer when I heard my phone barley beep.  I recognized the sound – it was that of an incoming text message. 

I contemplated getting up off my chair, putting down my tea and taking a two minute break from work to retrieve the text, but it could wait I thought. I was busy putting our paper Home and Away (or as it’s known now Irish Central Community News) to bed. It goes to press on a Sunday evening in New York so I was under the constraints of time. 

I left it another few minutes, but curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to know who was texting me on a Sunday evening. 

I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, and choosing to follow my curiosity that dark Sunday evening in New York was probably one of the most important decisions I ever made in my life. 

When I picked up the phone I saw it was from one of my best friends in the whole world, a male friend (early thirties). We had been through a lot together through the years. We confided in each other, had a lot of laughs together and got up to silly antics. 

He would often text to see how things were going for me in New York so I could have left it until later to read, but I decided to see what he had to say.  

The message read “I always loved you April.” 

Now that knocked me for two, because my friend’s messages were always very light hearted and jovial. The message felt wrong. 

I didn’t take it to mean that he loved me romantically, but rather that he loved me like a sister, but why was he randomly telling me this in a text message at 1 a.m. Irish time?

A dark fear creped over me.  This particular friend had been going through a very tough time emotionally for a few years. We had spoken about it many times. 

He had been bullied relentlessly as a child.  He was in a dark place, and only a few months before this message he told me he had been battling depression for many years. 

I was gob-smacked because the same fella was always the life and soul of the party, not a big drinker, but just a big personality and extremely kind hearted. 

Something felt wrong about this message. It felt final. My thoughts were racing. 

I instantly drew two conclusions. He was either very drunk or was about to take his life. I battled with it another minute, called my then fiancé, now husband, John into the room and filled him in. 

Before he got a chance to say anything I called my friend’s phone.  

“Hello,” said a very groggy voice at the other end of the line. “Who’s this?”

“It’s April, are you okay, what’s wrong?” I frantically asked.

“I can’t talk, I have to go,” and he hung up. 

He switched his phone off.  Again I wasn’t sure if he was drunk (which was a little out of his character) or if he had taken something in an effort to end his life. 

I had to make a decision there and then. I was 3,000 miles away in New York. I was helpless but there were others close by. 

I called his brother.  My instincts told me to. My friend had never told his family he was depressed and didn’t want them to know so I kept it to myself all this time, but that particular Sunday night I couldn’t do it anymore. 

The brother’s phone rang out the first time. I tried again and another groggy voice met me on the other end. I hadn’t time to explain everything. 

“I feel (friend) has taken an overdose or something. He has been depressed for a long time and I got this strange message that leads me to believe he might be harming himself. I could be wrong, God I hope I’m wrong but you have to go to his house now,” I blurted out. 

My friend’s brother was in the car in minutes and arrived at the house by about 1:40 a.m. Irish time. This was 30 minutes after I received the text. 

I waited patiently by the phone hoping and praying I was overreacting, and was already getting embarrassed at the thought of it.  I went back to doing the paper. I watched the phone every few minutes. John checked in with me every 10 minutes. 

There wasn’t a peep for about an hour. And then the phone rang. 

This time it was the brother in tears. I knew it was bad. 

I listened as he explained that my best friend, his younger brother, had taken a large quantity of pills -- medication he was on for his depression -- and by the time he reached him he was unconscious in the bed, alive but unconscious. 

An ambulance was called and he was taken straight to hospital. He was immediately pumped of all the medication in his system, and doctors said he would survive because his brother had gotten to him on time. He was lucky to be alive, they said. 

I was relieved and devastated at the same time. I was the only person to receive a text from him that night.  I thank God so many times that I chose to look at my phone, because if I waited the outcome could very well have been different.  

My friend was one of the lucky ones.  

Two days before John and I, and our two babies, were due to say goodbye to New York last year (May 20) I realized I had several missed calls from friends in Ireland. I thought they were getting excited to see me. 

That wasn’t the case unfortunately. When I finally returned one of the calls I was told to sit down. 

A former boyfriend of one of my close friends and a guy I had met on a few occasions had taken his own life. He shot himself. He was a detective and used his own gun. 

He also apparently battled with the depression demon and something sparked him off that night. He lost all his train of thought and pulled a gun on himself, successfully ending his all-too young life. 

When I was 15 a young fella of 16 I grew up with also shot himself in a murder suicide situation. I heard the shots from my bedroom window that night and wondered what the loud popping sounds were. I had never heard a gunshot before.  

This particular 16-year-old had a problem with drugs and went a little crazy on them. His father had a gun for hunting, and one particular Saturday night in April of that year (mid-nineties) jealousy overcame him and he shot a guy from Cork for kissing his girlfriend. 

Realizing his mistake pretty much straight away, he turned the gun on himself and shot himself in the head. His family was devastated, and still are to this day. 

And the stories go on and on. Like all of us I know many more people who have taken their lives, or attempted to take their own lives and thankfully didn’t succeed.   

The reason I’m writing this article today is because last week in Tralee, Co. Kerry (my birth town) a beautiful 16-year-old boy called Donal Walsh died all too young from cancer. 

Donal, who had become a celebrity in Ireland in the few months leading to his death, went on national television pleading with young people not to take their own lives. He wrote about it in newspapers, spoke to schools about it and constantly posted to social media sites. 

He knew he was terminal and his time on this earth was very limited. He wanted to live a long life. He wanted to play professional rugby, have a relationship, go to college, make all the mistakes young people make. 

He wanted life, and it angered him to the core to see so many young people, people his own age, ending their lives so abruptly. 

He begged them to seek help when they felt depressed, or were bullied or something horrible was happening to them. He repeated over and over again that suicide wasn’t the answer. 

His family buried Donal last Wednesday. Thousands of people from all over Ireland attended his funeral. His message will not be forgotten. 

Donal did save many lives before his death. He received several letters, emails and social media messages telling him so. Young kids wrote to him saying they wanted to take their lives, but after seeing him on the television they changed their minds. They felt selfish. 

Donal died saving others. 

My friend was also saved. He battled with depression (and guilt) for a few weeks after his suicide attempt. He then sought out a wonderful counselor who he claims put him back on the road to recovery. 

He didn’t go back on anti-depressants. Instead he took up cycling (a natural anti-depressant). He will tell you to this day that cycling has been his life saver. 

He cycles for leisure, for exercise and now has recently begun competing in races throughout Ireland. He loves cycling but he loves his life more. He is ever so grateful that he wasn’t successful in ending it all that dark January evening in 2009. 

"It kills me to see young people committing suicide.  I’m here fighting for my life for the third time, I’ve no say in anything.  They think they have a problem and this might be a solution, that does make me angry and I’m not going to lie about it.

“Twenty years ago (suicide) didn’t exist in society so why should it be an issue today.  If I’m meant to be a symbol for people to appreciate life then I’ll be happy to die if that’s what I’m dying for.”

--Donal Walsh (The Saturday Night Show, RTE, April 7, 2013)

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