‘When someone says “committed suicide” it is like a dagger into a loved one’s heart’
A Q&A by Lucy Caldwell with Catherine McBennett of the Niamh Louise Foundation for World Suicide Prevention Day tomorrow
Catherine McBennett: Overhearing someone say they were angry at my innocent child was the beginning of the fire in my heart to create awareness on suicide and help prevent another young child from dying. How dare anyone in the community call my child selfish for being ill, for dying? I wanted to know why
Northern Ireland has one of the highest rates of teen suicide in the world. No one quite knows why, and it often feels that no one knows what to do about it, or even how to talk about it.
My first play, Leaves, was about a teen suicide attempt. A few days after I heard that the script had won the George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright, and that Druid Theatre Company wanted to produce it, I opened a bundle of newspaper cuttings that my mum had sent from home. Among them was a heartbreaking article by a mother who had recently lost her 15-year-old daughter to suicide. She wanted to set up a foundation to help raise awareness of and prevent teen suicide and there was a phone number at the bottom for anyone willing to donate.
I’d written the play because I believed that fiction could, can, go into the darkest corners of the psyche and bring back from there something true, or shameful, or hidden, or otherwise inexpressible. But here was the chance to do something practical. I rang up, not for a moment expecting that the phone would be answered by the mother herself. Catherine McBennett was sitting at her kitchen table, devastated and in the darkest place of her life, but still, somehow, determined to do something to help other people who might find themselves in similar terrain. The Niamh Louise Foundation was born, and over the last 10 years it has gone from strength to strength. For World Suicide Awareness Day, on September 10th, I wanted to talk to Catherine about her experience and about teen mental health.
Catherine, can you tell us a little about your daughter, Niamh Louise McKee?
Niamh was a typical teenager. She was only 15 when she died by suicide, three months short of her 16th birthday in February 2006. She loved art with a passion, creating wonderful paintings and drawings. She loved to sing from a very young age, entering the feis when she was in primary school, singing at Mass and then eventually for our local Clonmore choir. She couldn’t wait to go to Tuesday evening’s choir practices and dreamed of singing solo on stage some day. Niamh followed the Gaelic football, staying true to our home county Tyrone, even when I married James, a loyal Armagh supporter and player for his local club, Clonmore. There was always great banter in the house with James and Niamh over who was the better team. I remember her calling me from Dungannon town one day after school, so excited and laughing down the phone, “Mum, guess who I just bumped into .... Peter Canavan!” We laughed at her pure joy and excitement and that’s how Niamh looked on everything: with hope, joy and the pure determination to be something in life.
There were times when a darkness would show in her eyes or she would worry about something and wasn’t able to shift the fear or thought. “Typical teenager,” people would say if I expressed my worries. Her dad and I decided to get her talking therapies which she attended. The therapist couldn’t see anything wrong, I suppose because Niamh always beamed her beautiful smile at everyone. The sessions ended and we settled into life.
I now know from the training and studying we have done through the foundation that this is known as “countersign”: when someone will pretend all is ok so as not to worry their loved ones, at some level hoping the thoughts of suicide will go away.
In 2005 we didn’t talk of suicide. We never thought it would come to our door. So when Niamh died and we decided to tackle the topic and do something about it, we were met with mixed reactions. We got the sympathy look with the raised eyebrow: “Ach God love them… Sure what do they know… It will pass.” When I wanted to write an article in our local paper on Niamh as a person, I was told not to. Overhearing someone say they were angry at my innocent child was the beginning of the fire in my heart to create awareness on suicide and help prevent another young child from dying. How dare anyone in the community call my child selfish for being ill, for dying? I wanted to know why.
I remember our very first conversation – it will never leave me. In my play, Leaves, I’d gone deep, deep into the psyche of a teenager who doesn’t want to live any more. I’d gone, perhaps, into the darkest corners of myself. It took me, in retrospect, at least six months and probably a year to recover from writing that play – from going to those places. What I’d tried to do was to bring someone back from the brink and have them articulate what they’d done, or wanted to do, or why, but my character, Lori, never does – she isn’t able to. Her parents and sisters are desperate to understand or somehow make sense of what she’s done, but she just can’t tell them, or explain it even to herself. We talked about this. And I remember you saying that if you could learn one thing from the loss of Niamh, and help one other person, one other family, that would be enough. And you set up the foundation in her name and you’ve now helped dozens, hundreds of young people and their family members.
We have come a long way over the last 10 years. The Niamh Louise Foundation was founded on what would have been Niamh’s 16th birthday. I had to distinguish early on between the charity and Niamh. The charity is the Niamh Louise Foundation, whereas Niamh was never given her second name in home or school; she was and still is Niamh. In my head, she is a vibrant 26-year-old.
The charity has developed over the years. We have a great dedicated committee with our founder members still involved. We recently launched our new strategy, with one of the primary aims and objectives focusing on children and young people in emotional distress and with thoughts of suicide. Our door is open to all age groups from as young as six years old to over 60 years of age. We do interventions with everyone who seeks help from the charity, based on the ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Training) model, and always asking if they have thoughts of suicide. We then tailor an individual recovery care plan which may include talking, art work complementary therapy, mentoring and befriending, group work for any individual that may be bereaved or struggling with thoughts of suicide/self-harm. The most important feedback we receive is that people see the foundation as a safe place where they can talk about their thoughts and fears. They feel welcomed, not judged, and are given hope that with the correct support and help it is possible to come from that dark place into a life where they can live, work and laugh again.
Hindsight can be a wonderful thing but in our case it’s soul-destroying. I only wish I’d known then the things that I know now, regarding emotional ill health and signs and symptoms for suicide. Perhaps then we wouldn’t be having this conversation and Niamh would be looking forward to her 27th birthday in February. God only knows I could be planning a wedding, preparing myself to become a granny, helping her move into her own home, so many things we have been robbed off if only there wasn’t the stigma associated to suicide or indeed the shame that still exists within the churches that our loved one has committed a terrible sin.
It’s something we really need to be talking about, we need to lose the stigma and shame around it. The Northern Irish writer Paul McVeigh is currently planning a project about suicide, too – and writing, language, has an important role to play. As you point out, we need to stop saying, for a start, “committed” suicide, as if it’s a crime – I know that’s something you’re very passionate about.
Yes. How anyone could possibly think that Niamh could commit a sin, or judge her, is nothing short of cruel and these attitudes and judgements towards individuals with poor mental health and thoughts of suicide need to stop. Suicide is not a crime. It was decriminalised in the UK in the 1960s, though not until the 1990s for the Republic of Ireland. When someone says “committed suicide” it is like a dagger into a loved one’s heart. People have physical ill health and can recover: people can have mental ill health and recover, too. We need to stop separating the two and shout from the rooftops that there is no shame in suffering from emotional ill health. Our mental wellbeing/health is as important as our physical wellbeing/health and we need to give the community permission to seek help without feeling judged or a lesser person in the world.
In my story, Killing Time, a young girl tries to end her life by overdosing on painkillers. When it doesn’t work, she doesn’t tell anyone what she’s done. She doesn’t even know why she’s done it herself, let alone how to begin speaking about it. What would you advise a young person in this situation?
I would always encourage anyone in distress to reach out and speak to someone they trust that they know wont judge or make them feel even worse. We hear so many stories where a young person has asked for help but got a negative response and shut down, hid away from the world and refused to speak of it again. If that has happened I would again encourage the young person to seek out a local charity that does understand or contact us at the foundation and we will guide them to the appropriate care and let them know it’s not their fault and they can recover. It is important that the person at risk contacts their GP, too.
I know that the Niamh Louise Foundation collects and publishes stories by parents, siblings and relatives of those lost to suicide, in the hope that they will bring comfort to others in similar situations. Where can we read these?
Our recently-printed literature and our Last Taboo book which tells people’s stories is available from our centre and throughout libraries in Northern Ireland.
The Niamh Louise Foundation can be found at niamhlouisefoundation.com
The charity provides love, understanding and respect with a nonpjudgmental listening ear to everyone regardless of age, sex, religion, or ethnicity.