In Belfast's Ardoyne area, young men are under extra pressures. Social Affairs Correspondent Carl O'Brien talks to two parents
Audrey O'Neill carefully takes a torn piece of Christmas card from out of her handbag and handles it delicately by the edges. On one side is a pattern of cartoon-style reindeer reclining in armchairs celebrating Christmas. The other side is blank, except for a neatly-written message in blue biro.
"Dear Mum, life is hard when people look down their nose at you. That life I've been thinking about ending for a long time. I'm sorry about the pain . . . At the end of the day I'll be with my Dad. Love, Cheeta." They were the last words her 18-year-old son, Anthony, wrote before hanging himself with a belt he had received for Christmas.
"I'm in pieces. The whole family is in bits," says Audrey, rubbing her tired eyes. "You just try to get through the day. You think of him every day, I dream of him. Last light I dreamt he was lying in the spare room in his Celtic top. When I woke up, I thought it was true. I got out of bed and looked inside. That's what it's like."
Anthony "Cheeta" O'Neill died on February 11th, 2004, in the early hours of the morning. Three days later his best friend, Barney Cairns (18), climbed to the top of scaffolding attached to Holy Cross church and hung himself on a spire with his fleece jacket. Another close friend of theirs, 18-year-old Philip "Pip" McTaggart, had hung himself with a length of hosepipe outside the church the previous May. Within 12 months, 10 people from the Ardoyne area had taken their own lives.
The deaths in the Ardoyne, a working-class Catholic area of north Belfast, sparked a panic suffused with disbelief and shock. "Suicide has been an issue in the area, but this surge in deaths was different," says local priest, Fr Gary Donegan. "This is an interface area, so there's often a lot of tension, but this was a different kind of tension."
Some blamed the deaths on copycat behaviour. The lack of leisure or sports facilities for young people and the rise in the abuse of drink and drugs may also have contributed to the deaths.
"It's probably a combination of a lot of these things," says Philip McTaggart, founder of the Pips Project (Public Initiative for the Prevention of Suicide and Self-Harm), named after McTaggart's 18-year-son who took his own life.
"On top of this there are very few preventative measures, there's no one for young people to go and talk to if they have problems." Audrey O'Neill, however, is certain of the factors which led to her son's suicide. Anthony and Barney were both victims of punishment beatings by the INLA, she says. Bernard was abducted from a friend's house, taken to a deserted spot and had a hole shot through both his shins.
When Anthony's turn came, he was grabbed from his bed in the middle of the night and stuffed down a manhole, Audrey says. He was never the same again. Once lively and irrepressible, he became quiet, introverted and scared. Sometimes he would come home, go straight to his bedroom and stare at the ceiling for hours.
"He had stuck up for himself, he opened his mouth too quick, that was his problem," Audrey recalls. "Anthony was frightened of what was going to happen next. If I went out to the shops for just 15 minutes, I'd hear a click in the lock of the door as I'd leave the house. That's how bad it was."
Audrey feels bitter over the role paramilitaries played in her son's death, but she is also fiercely critical of how health authorities responded to her son's depression. At 15 he was prescribed Ritalin by doctors, but it only seemed to send him further into a groggy depression, she says. Audrey sought counselling for him, but none was available.
The next two years for Anthony were a chaotic blur of overdoses and obsession with killing himself. Between the ages of 15 and 18, he took at least five overdoses. When it became clear he was a danger to himself, he was involuntarily detained in a psychiatric unit on two occasions.
Two weeks before he died, he was assessed again following another serious overdose. Audrey says she wanted him "sectioned" in a psychiatric unit because of the suicidal state he was in, but was refused. Instead, she claims, the official response was to increase his medication.
"I was begging for them to section him, they knew he was a risk, but they allowed him out. He told them he was going to kill himself," she says. "Their answer was to bump up his medication. The system failed him, that's what I think happened. If he had got the right help, I think he'd still be alive today."
While people across Belfast point to different factors behind the alarming rate of suicide, many community leaders are dealing proactively with the issue.
The Pips Project (see panel) is one of the groups spreading awareness of suicide and lobbying for better facilities for young people in the area.
"In nationalist north Belfast, particularly in Ardoyne, there is nothing for young people. What we need is somewhere for young people between the ages of 14 to 20 to go for help," says Philip McTaggart.
"After the Shankill feud, that community got additional youth workers, a drop-in centre for young people and a host of other initiatives. I am not saying that community didn't need those resources, because it did. What I am saying is that the rate of young people in this community who are taking their own lives shows it is urgently needed here now as well."
Another issue that needs to be tackled, according to many, is the fatalistic attitude of young people in the area. Dr Philip McGarry, a consultant psychiatrist at the Mater Hospital in north Belfast, says young people at risk of so-called punishment beatings often become depressive or develop anxiety and a fatalistic approach to their own lives.
Back at the O'Neill's terraced home, on the fringes of the Ardoyne, Audrey says she is still dealing with life one day at a time. "I've thought of doing it [ committing suicide] myself," she says, nodding slowly and firmly to herself. "But it's my kids who keep me going. When people ask me how I am, I say 'all right'. You don't want to be a burden on your friends all the time."
She moved house last year; there were too many memories in the old house. A first anniversary Mass for her son was held just a few days ago, but neither she nor her other eight children felt able to attend. "If Anthony had been killed in a car crash or something, that would be easier. But this is hard, because Anthony had a choice. At times I get angry with him and say, 'why did you leave me like this?' I just wish it never happened. He had his whole life in front of him."
Perched on top of the television is a framed photograph of Anthony and Barney, accompanied by two prayers. "They won't be the last [ to take their lives], that's for sure," says Audrey, staring sadly at the two pictures. "Unless they do something for young people, improve the way the health service deals with people, then it's going to keep on happening."
Pips Project 028-9075-2990, (048 from Republic) or see www.pipsproject.com
Console (suicide-bereaved support group) helpline 1800-201-890
Aware (helping to defeat depression) helpline
Samaritans, Republic of Ireland: 1850-609090
Northern Ireland: 08457-909090