We need to tackle women’s death by despair

‘Failures to address the shortage of houses actually kill people’

In the heat of reporting the referendum campaign, Irish Times journalist Kitty Holland found time to write about a development I think we all need to go back and read about.

Her article "Suicide on the rise among mothers in poorer Dublin areas" reported that, for the first time, women in some of the poorest parts of the city were taking their own lives in the same numbers as men.

Reporting an internal HSE memo, Holland noted that these women were generally mothers with young children aged from one to the teenage years. It is a dreadfully destructive situation, not only for the women themselves but also for their children, whose chances of a decent quality of life have probably plummeted.

One group of women, according to the memo, had experienced poverty, early school leaving, domestic violence, criminality, homelessness and adverse childhood experiences, with a history of problematic drug use. A second group had a history of “weekend-focused” substance misuse as well as similar issues of poverty and homelessness.


All of this strikes me as another example of "death by despair", a phrase that is used to describe similar phenomena in the United Kingdom and especially in the US.

Suicide is a lonely act but I don't think we can put these women's deaths down to their own internal problems alone

I used to think that death by despair had not yet reached our shores in any widespread way. But it’s here now. “There were 37 deaths by suspected suicide in Dublin South Central in 2017 and 50 per cent of those were women,” the memo said.

I’ve been talking about women but what of the men in their lives?

It would be interesting to know what role these men played in the lives of the mothers of their children. I expect some were involved and I expect others were not.

In some cases, the mothers may not have wanted to have anything to do with the men. In other cases, the men may not have wanted to have anything to do with the mothers.

The key point here is that we don’t actually know. I think it would be really instructive and helpful to find out. It would also be instructive to find out what involvement these women’s extended families, and the extended families of the fathers, had with them.

Suicide is a lonely act

Suicide is a lonely act but I don’t think we can put these women’s deaths down to their own internal problems alone. We are all a product of conditions as well as of choices and we need to know more about their conditions.

For instance, homelessness is part of the story of many of these women who are now lost to us. Failures to address the shortage of houses actually kill people.

I also wonder if the fall-off in funding for community organisations during the recession meant that services which could have helped these women were not available to them.

It’s only local, community bodies that can get down to doing the hands-on helping of people who live down the street or on the same estate. If you want to create a greater involvement by young men with their children, community bodies are the only ones that can provide the education and support for this.

If you want to help young mothers to deal with despair, or addiction, then it is again probably organisations that are based in the community that can do it.

Communities are powerful and it seems to me that if we want to tackle death by despair we need to enlist their help. No man or woman is an island and no amount of preaching or treatment will resolve the issues behind this unwelcome and, frankly, alarming development.

The answer will require the involvement of a network of services. Some of these are professional – education, training, gardaí, social workers for instance – but the knowledge of communities can make them far more effective.

Otherwise, we can expect the figures to get worse, we can expect more lonely deaths, and we can expect more children wandering around in a daze of shock and incomprehension at the loss of the person who was their whole world.

– Padraig O'Morain (pomorain@yahoo.com, @PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness for Worriers. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email