Breaking the taboo


NEWS FOCUS:Suicide is a major Irish public health problem and there are fears it may become bigger as the strains of the recession kick in, writes CHARLIE TAYLOR

EACH YEAR it is estimated that more than 500 people take their own lives in Ireland and yet suicide remains something of a taboo subject.

If anything, the numbers of individuals who are considered to have died by suicide is likely to be under-reported, as is the number who attempt to take their own lives but don’t succeed.

World Suicide Prevention Day, which takes place on September 10th, is intended to draw attention to the issue of suicide as a major public health problem. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), which is backing the initiative, up to one million people globally take their own lives every year, with almost 3,000 doing so on a daily basis.

While the issue of suicide is one that is not faced by Irish people alone, our tendency to avoid talking about the things that distress us does make us particularly vulnerable.

As more individuals come under strain due to job losses, there is growing concern among health professionals and support organisations that the number of people considering suicide may increase.

In fact, so alarmed is the National Office for Suicide Prevention about the issue that it recently announced plans to provide frontline staff at social welfare offices, and at Money Advice and Budgeting Service (Mabs) and Citizens Information Centres, with suicide awareness training following rising fears over the impact of the economic downturn on vulernable people.

The HSE is in the process of distributing more than 100,000 leaflets and pocket information cards with details of support agencies and advice on how to look after mental health for those who are unemployed or are facing financial difficulties.

One person who has opted to talk freely about their experience of suicide and to use that experience to assist others is Caroline McGuigan, a psychotherapist and the chief executive officer of Suicide or Survive (SoS).

Based in Arklow, Co Wicklow, the organisation, which provides services and support aimed at suicide prevention, was established by McGuigan in the aftermath of her attempt to take her own life in 1995.

McGuigan, who recently participated in Alan Gilsenan’s television documentary I See a Darkness, found that there was little or no support for those who try to take their own lives and, as a result, set up her own organisation.

Among the services which SoS provides is a group workshop known as the Eden Programme, which provides a supportive environment for those who have attempted or contemplated suicide.

Recognising that it takes time for a person to look at the possibility of living rather than dying, the programme runs on a weekly basis over a six-month period and is aimed at empowering individuals to make appropriate choices through education, life skills and self-awareness.

“The reality for most people who come to take part in our programme is that if they don’t do it they know they will die. Eden is really about reminding people that they have a value and a place in this world and the necessary skills with which to cope,” says McGuigan.

“For people coming in to us there’s a massive sense of shame and guilt alongside feelings of weakness. Some have found that their loved ones have gotten fed up with having to cope with them, and so by the time they reach us they have very little hope left and so we try to help them find it again,” she adds.

McGuigan believes that despite the intentions expressed in the Government’s policy document on mental health, Vision for Change, for a holistic view of mental illness, this has yet to become a reality, particularly where suicide is concerned.

She says that while there have been improvements in terms of support for those who are suicidal in recent years, there are still plenty of gaps, especially regarding the type of treatment that people can avail of, with medication still considered the primary way to treat individuals.

McGuigan is also concerned about the lack of information and support available to those who are feeling suicidal, particularly in rural areas, and says that services need to be better co-ordinated and must involve organisations such as SoS.

Although there may be confusion as to where people can turn when thinking of taking their own lives, and while there is undoubtedly still a stigma surrounding the issue, McGuigan believes society is slowly beginning to take the issue of suicide more seriously.

“Ten years ago you would not have found people admitting to ever having suicidal thoughts or of having attempted to take their lives, but some are beginning to be brave enough to discuss it which is vital because the more it gets talked about, the less of a taboo it becomes.

“The reality is that suicide is destroying communities in Ireland and I don’t think people realise the extent of it. As a society we are not allowing ourselves to fully consider the impact that suicide has on us and the fear it creates and this is something we need to address,” she adds.

While concerned about the impact of the recession on people’s wellbeing, McGuigan, who has recently been working with Amnesty Ireland on its campaign to help reduce the prejudice against those with mental health issues, believes all is not lost.

“Without sensationalising it, families are facing an awful lot right now. We have many communities where people don’t really know each other, and a lot of us feel very alone and very scared. However, I strongly believe that we have the resources in our communities to help each other, and I think that the key issue is to offer encouragement so that collectively we begin to watch out for one another.

“If we can keep people from becoming isolated, then that goes a long way to encouraging them to want to stay alive.”

  • Suicide or Survive (SoS) can be contacted at 0402-41487 or at www.
  • For additional support, contact the Samaritans (1850-609090), e-mail, or tel: Aware 1890-303302, Mon-Wed 10am-10pm; Thurs-Sun 10am-1am
  • A number of events will take place to mark World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10th, including a series of candlelit vigils in Dublin, Galway and Wexford. For further information, contact Turning the Tide on Suicide at 01-6615525,