‘We’ll never fully understand why Fintan decided life in his 30s was not worth living’

When vulnerable young people seek help, we need to be confident the State can provide it

The last photograph of Fintan, taken a month before he died in 2003.

The last photograph of Fintan, taken a month before he died in 2003.

 

I had been thinking a lot about my brother in the lead-up to his birthday this year. Fintan should have turned 50 on January 12th but he died by suicide aged 31, 19 years ago.

Over the last two decades, I have created a “Fintan” memory box that I sporadically sift through. There are many photos inside, poems he had penned, letters he had written to me, silly birthday cards, and his driving licence which he had secured just a few weeks before he died. The “congrats on passing the driving test” card that I had bought for him is in there too. It remains blank inside.

Fintan and Gabrielle.
Fintan and Gabrielle.

As a large family of 12 siblings, birthdays, especially milestone ones, are always well marked. Since Fintan’s sudden death in 2003, we have continued to celebrate his life posthumously. It’s always been important for us to share that his life mattered. For me, the memory box helps with milestone events. It brings me comfort to delve into the contents and fondly reminisce about my brother.

There is one item in the box, however, that always stirs negative raw emotion; the notes my father had written in the aftermath of his youngest son’s traumatic death.

I can only assume he was trying to relinquish some of his pain by putting his thoughts down on paper

The turmoil we all experienced at that time is still palpable from those notes. Handwritten in a barely decipherable scrawl, the notes evoke images of a broken parent, furiously writing in stream of consciousness.

I can only assume he was trying to relinquish some of his pain by putting his thoughts down on paper. The anguished words on the page are always emotionally difficult to read: “Doctor defensive... what did Fintan say to the psychologist that warranted them seeking an emergency contact number?... this fact is very glaring ... needs an answer.”

My father goes on to write: “Changed medication. Why? How long was he using this medication before change?... told to get on with our lives.” The final entry in my father’s notes asks a pointed question: “Is the system in error?”

Recovering alcoholic

The relationship between my father and Fintan hadn’t been an easy one. Fintan was sensitive, creative and gentle. A stark contrast to my traditional, stoic “just gets on with life” father. Despite their challenges, my father was undoubtedly proud, as were all of us, that Fintan had remained a recovering alcoholic throughout his 20s.

We’ll never fully understand why Fintan eventually decided that life in his 30s was not worth living. That is one of the worst things about suicide, the unanswered questions. As a family, we had some insight into Fintan’s mental health struggles, but we had hoped he’d never choose this permanent, devastating route to end his pain.

“Time is a healer” is an oft churned-out phrase when we lose a loved one. Sadly, I’m all too familiar with the term, having lost my father to cancer in 2011 and my mother to vascular dementia 11 months later.

TJ, Gabrielle’s eldest brother, died unexpectedly in 2018.
TJ, Gabrielle’s eldest brother, died unexpectedly in 2018.

In 2018, my eldest brother TJ unexpectedly died too. I share these facts not to be melodramatic but just to highlight that I’m familiar with grief and all its harrowing stages.

I loved my parents and was devastated when they died. They were both 81 and had lived, long fulfilling lives, so while I was sad they were gone, I accepted their deaths as the natural order of things in the circle of life.

Fintan’s death was different. I was 26. I’m now 45 and to this day, his death remains one of the most traumatic events of my life.

The suicide bereavement club is one that no one wants to be a part of but hundreds of families, like ours, reluctantly join annually. Fintan and too many others after him are part of startling statistics in Ireland.

Since my brother took his own life in 2003, he is one of a reported 8,787 people to die by suicide in Ireland between then and 2021. (There are likely other deaths that have gone unreported as suicide).

Fintan.
Fintan.

Strategic approach

I have estimated the 2021 statistic of 365, based on an average of the previous two years. As the true impact of the pandemic on our nation’s mental health is not yet fully known, that statistic is sadly likely to be higher in 2021, 2022 and beyond unless a more strategic, post-pandemic-specific approach to tackling mental health in Ireland is suitably funded and widely actioned.

A total of €1.149 billion was allocated to mental health in Budget 2022. This is a significant but much-warranted increase on previous years, incorporating investment in areas such as crisis resolutions teams, two new Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service telehubs (CAMHS) and enhanced capacity of community mental health teams.

Fintan.
Fintan.

All of these services are vital because suicide remains a prolific factor in the number of deaths occurring in Ireland annually, especially among young males. The CSO reports that in 2003, the year Fintan died, males made up 76 per cent of deaths by suicide. In 2020, that figure once again stood at 76 per cent.

Since 2003, I have worked alongside many others, in a voluntary capacity, on positive mental health initiatives, supported by the National Office for Suicide Prevention’s southeast branch.

Also, as part of my work at regional youth radio station Beat 102-103, we commissioned research last year to ascertain the impact of the pandemic on young people’s mental health to date. The findings were grim with little talk of hope.

Last July, my colleague and I presented those findings to the Oireachtas joint subcommittee on youth mental health. Through all these interactions with various stakeholders involved in the mental health sector, I have witnessed a lot of good people doing tremendous work.

Pre- pandemic, suicide rates had been falling. As we collectively try to navigate through these exceptionally challenging times, however, the road out appears significantly darker and unclear to far too many people.

If someone I know is struggling with their mental health, I encourage them to seek out the professional help they need. Help that I know I can’t sufficiently provide. Having the confidence to reach out safely is so important, but equally important is a society being confident too.

When a vulnerable person makes that brave leap to help save their life, we all need to be sure they will get the help they need from Ireland’s mental health services.

- Gabrielle Cummins is CEO of regional youth radio station Beat 102-103 and a positive mental health advocate. 

- If you are affected by any issue in this article, contact:

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