Confronting stigmas of mental health key to limiting suicide, says McAleese

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LIFTING THE stigma around mental health issues will be crucial to reducing the number of people dying by suicide each year, President Mary McAleese has said.

Speaking at an event yesterday organised by the charity Console, Mrs McAleese said the numbers dying by suicide were “deeply disturbing”, and that our historical reluctance to confront the issue has not served society well.

Efforts to build a culture of positive mental health where individuals felt they could seek support without fear or shame would be vitally important, she added.

“This culture of positive mental health involves . . . actively moving away from a troubling reluctance to seek appropriate help when we experience serious mental distress, or living inside circumstances that contribute to that mental stress, whether that is worries over sexuality or cyber-bullying or relationships.”

Latest provisional figures show there were 486 deaths by suicide last year. This represents an 8 per cent decrease on the previous year, when there was a record high of 527 suicides.

Mrs McAleese said the entire community had a role to play in ensuring more sensitivity to signs of people in distress, and an earlier response to people needing support. The need for action was all the more urgent given pressures caused by the downturn, she said.

“Mental ill-health and suicide have been with us in good times and in bad, but these difficult economic times undoubtedly increase the strain on individuals and families as unemployment and indebtedness take their toll,” she said.

“They make it all the more imperative that we do all that we can to reduce the suicide rate, reduce the unnecessary waste of human life, reduce the awful legacy of grief for the bereaved and reduce the awful, overwhelming misery of a life that feels compelled to contemplate suicide.”

Yesterday’s event, which involved experts on suicide prevention and people bereaved by suicide, was held on the eve of world suicide prevention day.

Fr Aidan Troy told the conference religion had been a pillar of strength for many vulnerable people in the past, but a growing loss of faith had create a vacuum that has not been filled.

“I must acknowledge that the abuse scandals are a big issue if I am to continue to operate in a church that is so discredited. To help prevent suicide, we need to restore spirituality, though not necessarily in the form of organised religion,” he said.

Phyllis MacNamara spoke powerfully of the sense of grief and trauma she experienced following the death of her husband Michael after a period of panic and anxiety in 2008. She said there was an urgent need to ensure there were approachable support services to turn to for people in crisis.

“We have to make these changes. Remember, anyone can die by suicide . . . And when suicide comes, it rips through life and devastates all in its path, leaving grief and trauma that is difficult to bear.”

She said the support of friends and the value of belonging to a community had helped with her feelings of isolation and abandonment. In particular, she said the support group Console had allowed her to vent her feelings and to know she was not alone.

“I didn’t know what to do when facing this crisis. I want to save people from these situations. I would die happily if other people know what to do when confronted with crisis like this,” she said. “I have a new vocation now. This is my calling: to open up, be honest, share my experiences and, hopefully makes changes which can save others from Michael’s fate.”

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