Talking about suicide
Ireland was the last country in Europe to decriminalise suicide
Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny and Dan Neville TD announcing plans to address the issue of mental illness. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Dan Neville Fine Gael TD. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
We are sadly familiar with the phenomenon by now. People who seem to have everything going for them suddenly turn around and bring their lives to an end, leaving the rest of us gasping and asking ourselves why.
Suicide is an issue in all parts of society and Dan Neville cautions that there is never a single cause. As a long-time campaigner on mental health issues, he has learnt that several factors are usually involved.
“Suicide is a very complex issue. We like to blame it on something like cyber-bullying or a single life-event but it’s never just that. It’s a complex issue of psychiatric, psychological, emotional and life events,” he says.
Neville is a backbench Fine Gael TD from Co Limerick whose work involves the usual representations on behalf of constituents that Dáil deputies must make if they want to survive politically. But suicide prevention is his passion and he has been involved with the issue now for just 25 years.
He recalls that after he was elected to the Seanad in 1989, he attended a Young Fine Gael conference which passed a motion from Clare delegate Seamus Mulconry, now the executive director of Philanthropy Ireland, that suicide should be decriminalised.
Neville brought the matter back to the Seanad: “There was no chance of debate at the time because suicide was not a ‘discussable’ issue. In fact, all the advice I got was not to go near the subject as it would seriously damage my political situation and would also hurt people who were bereaved by suicide.”
He persisted and, in late 1990, he brought a Bill on decriminalisation before the Seanad, but the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat government in power at the time rejected it.
He then brought a second Bill, and a third. “To make a long story short, [then-Minister for Justice] Máire Geoghegan-Quinn accepted my Bill but the government introduced it as their own Bill and suicide was decriminalised by signature of President Mary Robinson on July 1st, 1993.”
Neville says he then put the issue to one side for a while: “I didn’t want to be known as the Suicide Senator.” But before long he returned to the subject and pressed for a task force on suicide prevention, similar to the Finnish model, which was established by then-Minister for Health and fellow-Limerickman Michael Noonan in November 1995.
In the following year, 1996, along with psychiatrists Dr John Connolly and the late Dr Michael Kelleher, he founded the Irish Association of Suicidology (IAS). Neville, who is president of the association, says his interest in the subject was not sparked-off by personal factors, but developed for other reasons. “First of all, it was being ignored. There was a strong taboo around the whole area. It was part of the ‘hidden Ireland’.”
He points out suicide was decriminalised in the UK in the 1960s: “We were the last country in Europe to decriminalise it.” The reaction to his work that he got from people bereaved by suicide was typified by a woman from Cork: “She said the most important thing I did was for her to know that her son wasn’t a criminal.”
He says the media should report the issue “in a way that doesn’t hurt the bereaved and doesn’t cause further suicide”. It should never be said that someone “committed” suicide. It is no longer a crime: “The word ‘commit’ hurts a lot of the bereaved.”
The recurring question is, why do people do it? “First of all, 80 to 90 per cent of those who take their lives are suffering from a mental illness problem,” says Neville, but he adds the cautionary note that “99 per cent of people suffering a mental illness will never have suicide ideation”.
What about the 10 per cent of suicides who do not suffer from mental illness but still end up taking their lives: “They are in despair, there’s a hopelessness. Life-experience has caused them to believe that the only way they can overcome their difficulties is to take their lives.
“What we know from research is, these people who take their lives don’t want to die but they don’t know any other way to remove the pain they are in,” he says.
In some cases, friends remark afterwards that the victim appeared to be in an upbeat mood shortly beforehand and they are mystified that the suicide could take place in such circumstances. Neville cites one expert who calls it “the cocoon effect” whereby people who have arrived at the fateful decision to take their lives can appear relaxed as a result.
Asked if the decline of the religious observance had contributed to the suicide problem, he says: “There were two issues around that, one was the spiritual, religious belief which encouraged people maybe to suffer in this life and prosper in the next. And maybe confession was a kind of therapy.” He makes the point that going to Sunday Mass promoted human contact: “It was not alone a religious thing, but it was a communal thing. It was very much a social event.”
Despite being a Government TD, Neville has spoken out against cutbacks in mental health services. “I’m a bit disappointed,” he says, “but we are assured that that money will come in the future.”