No evidence to suggest under-reporting of suicide, committee hears

Groups appear before Joint Committee on Health and Children to discuss draft report

Chairman of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children Jerry Buttimer. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Chairman of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children Jerry Buttimer. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Thu, Mar 13, 2014, 16:13

There is no evidence to suggest there is under-reporting of suicide in Ireland or that there’s an escalating rate of suicide, an Oireachtas health committee has heard.

Representatives of organisations working to prevent suicide and self-harm and some in the mental health arena appeared before the Joint Committee on Health and Children to give their views on its recent draft report on suicide.

Dr Steve McFeely of the Central Statistics Office said there was “no evidence to suggest there is under-reporting”.

If the Irish figures were taken over a period of time, the numbers were “generally quite stable and the patterns aren’t dissimilar to what we see in a standardised rate across Europe”, he said.

The CSO, he said, took a “rather agnostic view” as it was just compiling the data. He said if the figures were taken from any given start year, different conclusions could be reached.

Over a period of five years it might show an increase, but over a period of 10 years it did not, he said.

“People just need to be cautious about where they start and end their analysis.”

Organisations before the committee expressed differing views on whether inquests should be held in cases of suicide.

Dr Myra Cullinane of the Coroners’ Society of Ireland said she believed there was a “great public utility” in the holding of inquests into such deaths.

The organisation would “strongly support” analysis of coroners’ files each year because there was no information on a coroner’s certificate to assist with reaching a verdict about suicide. The certificate simply listed a cause of death, she said.

The coroner’s file, however, would show issues such as whether there was marital breakdown, homophobic bullying or cyberbullying.

“There is a fund of information there for analysis.”

Addressing the question of cyberbullying, Prof Ellen Arensman of UCC said there was “a certain lack of high-quality research” in the area.

But she said the research pointed to a combination of “individual vulnerability and sometimes relatively severe mental health issues, and sometimes cyberbullying can be a triggering issue”.

Chairman of the Irish Association of Suicidology, Dr Justin Brophy, told the committee that while rates of suicide had fluctuated, we had a “less well-described problem of suicide in the elderly”.

As the population grows older, that would become an “increasing problem”, he said. Dr Brophy suggested there was also an “undeniable increase” in demand for assisted suicide.

He urged the Government to take steps to educate people about the dangers of “binge drinking” and to engage in campaigns in second-level schools to promote “sensible limits”.

Criticising late bar extensions, Dr Brophy said some festivals, which were “periods of effectively state-sponsored excess” needed to be curtailed.

The conditions under which such extensions were granted needed to be policed, and the consequences of the excesses they created needed to be considered.

Asked by committee chairman Jerry Buttimer whether he was saying the local Garda Superintendent didn’t consider all the criteria when such extensions were applied for, Dr Brophy said he believed this was occasionally the case.

Committee rapporteur, Senator John Gilroy, who produced the draft report ‘Challenging Assumptions: a purposeful conversation’, said today’s proceedings would feed back into a further period of public consultation.

Mr Gilroy, a former psychiatric nurse, said the ‘Reach Out’ document, which is the current national strategy on suicide prevention, was a “vague” document with a “woolliness of language that is difficult to understand”.

It had no measurable outcomes and no procedure for formal reviews, even though it had been a 10-year policy. There was also no named agency with responsibility for outcomes.

Director of the NOSP, Gerry Raleigh, said there were “never enough resources”. But with a budget of €8.8 million this year, he believed the organisation had sufficient to do what it needed to do.

With regard to plans for the new national framework on suicide prevention, Mr Raleigh said the ‘Reach Out’ strategy had been “an excellent document of its day”.

But he indicated the office needed to be “much sharper” in setting out clear points of reference for what it needed to do.