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As 2013 comes to a close, many will reflect that this was the year that mental health care and the issue of suicide finally became front page news in Ireland.
In Boston, the Irish immigrant community did not go unscathed with episodes of attempted and completed suicides increasing at an alarming rate.
Like many people in the Irish immigrant community, Ciara Lavery, a case manager at the Irish International Immigrant Center (IIIC), Boston, has walked in the shadows of suicide. The barrage of unanswered questions and the rollercoaster of emotions that devastated family members and friends face in the days, weeks, months and years after a loved one takes their own life are all too familiar to her.
“I know she suffered from depression but...” Lavery's voice cracks as she recalls the evening eight years ago she received a phone call from her mother in Ireland informing her that Leona, her childhood best friend had ended her life.
Despite the publication of reports indicating the need for more awareness surrounding mental health and its associated problems, the topic is still seen as taboo, especially in the Irish immigrant community.
Father John McCarthy, chaplain at the Irish Pastoral Center (IPC), agrees that amongst the Irish there is still a stigma attached to mental health problems.
He said, “The community in general does not speak openly about mental health issues and not enough seek the help they need.”
His views correlate with the most recent figures from Ireland by the National Office for Suicide Prevention, which highlights the devastating results this lack of discussion is having with a total of 495 deaths due to suicide in 2010.
Dóchas, the Irish word for Hope, aims to establish a network of individuals and groups to tackle the issue.
The first Dóchas Suicide Prevention Coalition meeting will be held in South Boston at the Labouré Center in South Boston on November 6 and members of the Irish American community in the Greater Boston area are invited to attend. For more information, please contact either the IPC 617-265-5300 or the IIIC at 617- 542-7654.
The statistics show that 80 percent of these deaths were males and 42 percent of these males were under the age of 40. Due to these alarming figures, Ireland now ranks fourth in the EU in terms of deaths by suicide amongst young people.
This worrying trend is not exclusive to Ireland. The IIIC’s Director of Wellness and Education, Danielle Owen, notes “we see the trends in Ireland being reflected here” as research shows that in Massachusetts, suicide is the number one cause of death outside of natural illnesses.
The most recent data available from the Department of Public Health in Massachusetts gives a grim account of just how prolific suicide is with 4,500 deaths recorded between the years of 2000 and 2009. Samaritans organizations in the state responded to over 200,000 calls in 2010, a 14 percent increase on 2009. Once again, research highlights the disparity in the sexes with males outnumbering women 3 to 1. In 2009 alone, 421 males took their own lives compared with 109 suicides among females. Information from the Massachusetts Violent Death Reporting System from the same year also reveals that 55% of these individuals had a current mental health problem and 29.5% had a history of substance/alcohol abuse.
“It felt like someone had literally punched me in the stomach” Lavery says on receiving the news of Leona’s death. “I felt sick; I felt extreme guilt because I knew she was not doing well and I could have been a better friend.”
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in the US, Lavery is not alone with an average six members of our community directly impacted when an individual succeeds in taking their life. All the statistics indicate that mental health problems and suicide are now a major public health issue of epidemic proportions.
In September a large crowd attended a “Grief after suicide” discussion in Boston. Among the crowd were Ciara Lavery and her colleagues from the IIIC and IPC.
The meeting allowed individuals to talk about their personal experience with suicide and how they survived the loss of a loved one. Director of Wellness and Education at the IIIC, Danielle Owen, commented “it was heartbreaking.”
Moved by these stories and also buoyed by the pressing need for community engagement on this issue, the staff members from both organizations decided to partner together to support and encourage a community-led approach for the prevention of suicide and the Dóchas Suicide Prevention Coalition was formed. These two Irish organizations, which have been serving the Irish immigrant community in Boston for over 25 years, frequently find themselves responding to people dealing with a suicide crisis.
Speaking about the partnership, Eileen O’Callaghan, the Senior Program Co-coordinator at the IPC, said, “Our aim is to unite concerned members of the community, to discuss what we can do together to tackle this issue.”
A native of Cork, O’Callaghan has been working for over a year at the IPC which is located in the predominately Irish neighborhood of Dorchester. Her experiences with the clients at the IPC confirm that that there is a rise in the numbers reaching out to the center for assistance. While there is a tendency to believe that just young males are at risk or those that are suffering from drugs/alcohol addictions, O'Callaghan stresses, “Depression and other mental health illnesses can affect anyone.”
O’Callaghan, commenting on the upcoming meeting to be held in Boston, said, “People suffering with depression need to know that there is help available…talking about suicide and depression can be very daunting but we need to spread the message that talk is part of the solution."
Anybody reading this article feeling suicidal or who is dealing with a loved one suffering with mental health issues and would like to speak with someone please contact the IPC 617-265-5300 or the IIIC at 617-542-7654. Alternatively, you can call The Samaritans either on their statewide toll-free number - 877-870-4673 or for the Greater Boston area is it is recommended to call 617-247-0220. If it is an emergency please call 911.
Read more on the issue of mental health here.