Answers are rarely easy or straightforward
BackgroundShannon Gallagher is the latest tragic case of young people taking their own lives
When a young person takes their own life, it can baffle and panic a community. For parents and young people, there is often a mixture of fear, anxiety and anger. But most of all, there is the unanswered – and unanswerable – question: why?
Shannon Gallagher, who just two months ago paid an emotional tribute following the death of her sister Erin (13), is yet another of these tragic losses. She is the latest in a number of high-profile tragic cases of young people taking their own lives.
There are rarely easy or straightforward answers. The causes of suicide are complex and are likely to involve psychological, biological, social and environmental factors.
What we do know is this: young people who live in communities where there has been a recent outbreak of suicide among other young people are at a much higher risk of taking their own life.
The turmoil left in the wake of a suicide does not just affect a single family. The emotional wreckage can affect friends, schoolmates and neighbours for miles around.
At Shannon Gallagher’s school yesterday, psychologists and guidance counsellors met to discuss how to respond to the needs of the students.
Avenues of support
Experts on suicide prevention and mental health say, more generally, that providing avenues of support for any young person going through tough times is crucial.
“We need to talk to each other,” says Dr Tony Bates, founder of youth mental health service Headstrong.
“Minding our mental health means turning our inner conflicts into conversations, so that we can find a way through them rather than allow them to get the better of us.”
He also says adults have a responsibility not to panic or over-react – sometimes just being there and keeping lines of communication open is enough.
About one child and adolescent in 10 suffers from mental health problems, research shows. It is a reminder that adolescence can be a tough time. It is no surprise that many feel stressed or anxious from time to time. Establishing your independence, navigating your way through adulthood and making critical life decisions is no easy feat.
With mental health and education budgets under strain, there is increasing concern at whether these supports will survive spending cutbacks.
On a positive note, though, many supports targeted at young people are changing.
Some teaching staff are adopting “whole-school” approaches, which means involving teachers, parents and students in tackling mental health issues.
Teachers and staff at Christ the King Girls Secondary School in Cork, for example, have had real success creating an environment where young people feel connected and able to share their feelings. It has, for example, trained older students as mentors for younger students.
Groups like Headstrong are also providing youth cafe-type settings where young people can get advice, share their experiences or just hang out.
For people like Keith, a young man who battled with anxiety and depression as a teenager, these kinds of interventions are potentially life-saving.
He says his problems felt like a box that kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger.
Through the support of some great people, he says, he has come a long way. “I feel like an eagle these days. When you look around you at all the great things there are and the things you would have missed if you weren’t here,” he says.
“Young people might need a little help to cope or deal with problems. Everyone out there needs to see that there is light at the end of the tunnel; you just might need some help getting there.”