Decisive action needed to address youth suicide issue
OPINION:The right systems and supports can go a long way in tackling suicide among young people
In the last week we have witnessed two appalling examples of the preventable loss of young life. I arrived in Dublin from Australia on Thursday to be shocked by the death of the second of two teenage sisters, Shannon Gallagher, in Ballybofey, Co Donegal. By coincidence, my grandmother was born in Ballybofey, and Shannon’s funeral was in the church in Stranorlar where my grandparents married in the late 19th century.
The second tragedy was of course the mass murder of much younger children in the US community of Newtown by a disturbed young man. How can these tragedies be prevented? In each case there has been confusion, a hunger to understand why such events happened, and a desperate call for prevention.
Mental ill health, broadly defined, facilitated by potent social forces, has almost certainly played a role in both tragedies. However, the first is much more preventable than the second. Gun control seems out of reach in the US, and identifying and responding to disturbed young men in time in the absence of a collectivist culture or a functioning mental health system for young people seems impossible.
The scale of the two causes of premature death deserves comment. Mass murder even in the US kills relatively few young people. Yet every year in Ireland hundreds of young people die from suicide.
These deaths are increasing. In Australia, where I work in youth mental health, suicide also overshadows the road toll as the major preventable cause of death in young people. Youth suicide is not the mystery that it seems and rarely comes out of the blue in mentally healthy people.
There are many forces driving it. The final common pathway in nearly every case is the enduring experience of unbearable emotional pain, which young people are generally poorly equipped to deal with. Their support systems are also frequently poorly equipped to help them.
One factor underlying the “copycat phenomenon” is that there are many young people close to the edge and an illusory “solution” is thrust in front of them by one of their peers. This is compounded if the act or the young person is idealised as courageous rather than seen as suffering severely, becoming overwhelmed, with nowhere to turn.
Unlike some of my colleagues, I believe that the media should prominently report suicide, obviously within guidelines and with great sensitivity to the families, to overcome secrecy and taboo, and ensure that the public are aware of the scale of the challenge. This should be done in a manner that deters and reduces risk by revealing the devastation that is left in suicide’s wake. The media must not mystify or glamorise suicide, treat it in a superficial or fatalistic manner, nor imply that it is ever a solution or acceptable.
Suicidal risk is nearly always relatively transient if effective help is provided. A fundamental problem is that the latter is in short supply for young people. Media reporting of the US tragedy features a demand for action. Media reporting of suicide should create the same pressure, which has a much better chance of success in reducing preventable death.