Battle against normalising suicide one of society’s great challenges
Young people must be conditioned to accept setbacks in their lives
Irish society is in danger of normalising suicide as one of a number of possible reactions to extreme stress because we are not conditioning our children to accept disappointments in their lives.
Organisations such as Console aim to destigmatise both the person who has died through suicide and the bereaved family, and we achieve great success through working both with families and people in crisis.
However, it is becoming more apparent to us that young people, in particular, are increasingly coming to choose suicide as an option. In legitimately trying to understand the pressures that drive some people to take their own lives but at the same time showing transient or superficial sympathy towards the victims, a trend towards unintentionally legitimising the act may be developing.
In celebrating the lives of those who have died without offering any sensitive criticism of the act itself, there is a real danger some impressionable people could confuse this with championing the act of suicide itself.
A child cannot grow up to believe that suicide is an understandable or appropriate response to any form of upsetting life event. The suicide of those who have not even begun to live needs to leave society sick with outrage at an unnecessary, cruel loss.
Contrary to popular belief, suicide is not always the result of mental illness; sometimes it is a rash reaction to a temporary upset. The phrase of suicide being a permanent solution to a temporary problem is commonly used in and around tragic events.
It might strike someone who is not suicidal as a clever statement, but the audience it is aimed at is people who are suicidal. The common purpose of suicide is to seek a solution to, or escape from, intolerable emotion, unbearable pain or unacceptable anguish. So emphasising to a suicidal person that suicide is a permanent solution is unhelpful.
Furthermore, from the point of view of the person in crisis, the “temporary” pain from which suicide would provide escape is most certainly not temporary.
The life skill we must impart to our children is not to expect all will go right in their lives, to understand they will suffer many disappointments and some will upset them greatly.
The high expectations of the Celtic Tiger years have given way to a generation who believe that unless they excel, they will not reach the heights that their parents or siblings did, or the expectations they believe are put on them. All too often, we are dealing with young people who cannot cope with the fact they will not get what they want, young people who find it hard to accept that people may treat them badly.
Our constant message is that sometimes, no matter how hard people try, they may not get what they hope for. However, life is a long and varied road, and we must ensure our children do not get stuck in potholes that they cannot find their way out of.
Our children and young adults need to know there are many paths to happiness, not just the one that society seems to map out. They need to know it is all right not to succeed in education, in friendship or in love. These are mere weigh points on the road.
Most importantly, young people need to find some comfort and belonging in their lives and feel as valid as the people they may perceive to be in a better position or “happier” than themselves.
Relatives whose loved ones have taken their own lives sometimes feel they should have done more. They are left with many questions, the most poignant generally being: “Was our love not enough?” The answer is, always, of course it was.
However, if a young person does not see talking about their problems as an option, then the door is going to remain ajar to the worst of options and their innate levels of resilience and coping will never be nurtured. Young people need to know from their parents that no matter what they have done, or how bad the situation, you are there to listen, to help and to advise.
As a society, as media organisations, as educators and as parents, we need to keep the lines of communication open and increase the emphasis to young people that suicide is innately wrong and should never be the correct solution to their problems.
Importantly, we need to urgently reflect on our own responsibilities, as policymakers, care givers, headline writers and as commentators on the messages we deliver and maintain careful, restrained dignity and sensitivity in times of crisis or tragedy.
Sadly, there may be times when a young person feels no one understands, no one can help and there is no hope, but they need to realise this will pass, it is an illusion. There are supports, hope, love and a future for us all and we should try to create a comfortable and safe place for everyone.
Getting this message across may be our greatest intergenerational challenge yet.
Paul Kelly is chief executive of Console, the suicide bereavement and prevention charity