We may wish to ignore suicide, but that won’t make it go away
Prevention officer estimates that two people take their lives every day in Ireland
A suicide-prevention campaign in the past featured Irish rugby stars Rob Kearney, Shane Horgan and Keith Gleeson. Photograph: Frank Miller
On Tuesday, a HSE suicide prevention officer was reported by this newspaper as revealing that provisional figures for last year show a 20 per cent rise in suicides compared with the numbers recorded for 2011.
Josephine Rigney said that the “true figure” was probably 20 per cent higher again, as many deaths are still not being classified as suicide. She estimated that there are two suicides every day in Ireland.
Maria Whyte, the Galway manager of the national charity Console, suggested that Ireland needs to tackle the stigma around suicide. She is absolutely right. As a start, we should think of affording this tragic and growing phenomenon the attention it deserves. As one example, there might well have been sound reasons for The Irish Times giving fewer than 200 words to Ms Rigney’s comments, and putting them at the bottom of page 7 in the Briefs section.
But, irrespective of what those reasons were, the positioning of a story in a newspaper is taken as an indication of its importance. And in this case the suggestion appeared to be that, in the grand scheme of things, the suicide rate in Ireland is of no great import at all.
According to Ms Rigney, 525 people took their own lives during 2012, an increase of 100 on the previous year. If, as she speculates, this is 20 per cent short, then the true figure is in the region of 630, which is truly shocking. But what can be done to reverse this upward trend? It appears certain that avoiding the subject isn’t the answer. We have tried that approach (albeit by default), but still the figures keep rising. I am well aware of the fear that highlighting suicide can lead to an increase in incidents; for a long time I subscribed to this view myself.
But the hard fact is that while we have been studiously downplaying these tragedies, the island of Ireland, North and South, has become a suicide hot spot. Far worse than ignoring suicide is the stigmatising of it, which must surely add to its frequency. A person who is seriously considering taking his or her own life will be extremely loath to confide in a friend or a family member, never mind to seek professional help, while society considers suicidal feelings to be at best a sign of weakness, and at worst something to be ashamed of.
More broadly, while suicide remains a taboo subject we will continue avoiding a much-needed open and honest public discussion on the subject, its main causes and what can be done to address them. At present, it’s as though there is a belief that if we ignore suicide it will somehow go away of its own accord.