Lack of support for suicidal teens exacts a terrible cost

Richie Sadlier: Hardest part of my job is telling parents there are no available beds for a young person in a crisis

When we urge teenagers to ask for help the implied message is that the country can provide it. It’s only when you work in this area do you realise how untrue that is

When we urge teenagers to ask for help the implied message is that the country can provide it. It’s only when you work in this area do you realise how untrue that is

 

I wish I didn’t have so many anecdotes. I wish I had nothing to say.

I’d love if the topic of suicide was one I had little awareness of, but it’s been in my personal and professional life for as long as I can remember. I’m sure it’s the same for mental health practitioners everywhere in Ireland, but it’s becoming that way for a lot of other people too.

Despite the number of people who have lost someone they know to suicide, it’s still a subject we prefer to avoid discussing at all costs.

I did a presentation on male suicide for a college assignment many years ago. I met up with friends afterwards and a couple of us began to list the lads we personally knew who had taken their own lives. We got to around 11 names in about 30 seconds but stopped the conversation abruptly.

A brother of one of the lads standing next to us had died by suicide so we figured it wasn’t right to be talking about it. Afraid of upsetting him or feeling awkward ourselves, we got it off the table and chatted about football instead.

I’ve written before of a school principal who cancelled a talk I was due to give to his sixth year classes. One of his concerns was around my intention to broach this topic. His fear was that if any of the students went on to attempt suicide later that year, the cause would be traced back to my visit and the school would be held liable. Afraid of being accused of causing one of the students’ deaths in the future, he called off my talk about self-care and got on with his day.

One of the classes in my mental fitness module is about suicide prevention. It doubled up as a suicide bereavement class recently due to the death of one of the sixth year students in October. He died on the night of Storm Ophelia. Some of the lads in the class also knew the fifth-year student from a neighbouring school who died in early November.

The same week, our senior football team was asked to observe a minute’s silence before their game to mark the death of one of the students from the opposing school. Later that month, our annual ‘Run For Life’ charity event was postponed for 24 hours as a mark of respect to the family of a woman whose body was found nearby.

Four young lives lost to suicide in a matter of weeks.

Maybe I shouldn’t be writing about stuff like this in any way. Maybe I’m adding to the grief of the surviving families by referencing these deaths in a column like this. Given the complexity and the bleakness of it all, maybe avoiding this issue entirely would have been more appropriate. It certainly would have been easier. I had my own crisis in 2003 and some of my clients are in one now, so writing about virtually anything else would have been handier.

In-patient beds

I read a report recently highlighting the inadequacies of Ireland’s mental health services. It covered the closure of in-patient beds, the lack of community resources, the reduction of mental health budget as a percentage of the overall health budget and about the collective failure to implement national policy. It reminded me of the part of my job I struggle with the most. The part of my job that comes directly as the result of these failings.

Though it’s obviously not without its challenges, I love being an adolescent psychotherapist. I find working with teenagers to be indescribably uplifting the vast majority of the time. The hardest part of my job, though, is when it’s clear the person in front of me needs more care than I can provide. They’ve identified suicide as the solution to their dilemma and the risk of an attempt is imminent.

Booking another session in a week’s time will not sustain them. They need hospital care and they need it immediately, so I do my best to help. But none of this is the part I find the most difficult. 

Tragically, he wasn’t ready to speak about his pain to someone else, but the facilities and supports should be in place for those that are

That comes when I’ve to inform the parents there are no available beds.

That, unfortunately, nobody’s got room for their suicidal teen.

Not everyone can be saved, and this is hardly an Irish-only phenomenon. Every country in the world is impacted by suicide. I know all this. And, as hard as it may be to accept, some people are almost impossible to reach. They suffer in silence and keep their pain well hidden. You only realise they’ve been struggling when you hear they’ve died.

One of the toughest experiences I had in this area came a couple of years ago. A friend told me of his situation one night on the phone. He was in a bad way. I did my best to convince him to get professional help. He said he would, but only from me. I explained the ethical barriers to me being his therapist, but he didn’t care about all that. He figured it would be easier speaking to someone that he knew and trusted.

I asked him to meet me the following day so I could speak to him about other therapists I thought he’d work well with. I repeated I wasn’t an option because of our history together. We’d been abroad together, drunk together and went to matches together. Unfortunately, the prospect of speaking to a stranger was too much for him. He said he’d rather not meet and wasn’t interested in therapy with anyone.

It wasn’t long before he was found dead in his bedroom in the family home. The coroner’s report said he died of heart failure as the result of a drug overdose.

Tragically, he wasn’t ready to speak about his pain to someone else, but the facilities and supports should be in place for those that are.

When we urge teenagers to ask for help the implied message is that the country can provide it.

It’s only when you work in this area do you realise how untrue that is.

  • If you are affected by any of the issues raised, you can contact: 
    Pieta House at 1800-247247
    Samaritans by telephoning 116123 for free, texting 087-2609090 or emailing jo@samaritans.org
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