Lifting stigma around mental health ‘key to reducing suicide’

Console calls on Government to remove requirement for public inquests in suicide cases

Console chief executive Paul Kelly has said public inquests into suicide deaths cause unnecessary trauma to bereaved families. Photograph: Conor McCabe Photography

Console chief executive Paul Kelly has said public inquests into suicide deaths cause unnecessary trauma to bereaved families. Photograph: Conor McCabe Photography

 

The stigma surrounding mental health issues in Ireland must be tackled in an effort to reduce the number of people dying by suicide, the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health has said.

Speaking at an event to mark World Suicide Prevention Day in Dublin today, Kathleen Lynch said while a lot of progress had been made in recent years in opening up the discussion around suicide and mental health, the “help-seeking isn’t quite there yet”.

The stigma attached to mental health difficulties “sometimes stops us from reaching out for help. We need to get rid of that stigma…. to allow people the space to talk about it in the same way they talk about anything else,” she said.

“Young people who feel there is no hope and the only way out is to die by suicide… we have to convince them that before they take that irreversible step, they need to reach out and look for help.”

A total of 475 people died by suicide in Ireland last year, a 6.3 per cent drop on the 2012 figure.

The Minister said when talking about suicide it was “sometimes too easy to get caught up in the statistics”, but “we should be talking to the individual… assuring them that our lives would be much less without them, and they would not just leave a hole in our heart, but a hole in our community.

“Sometimes people don’t get that message, because sometimes it is not delivered. It is not that we don’t feel it, but we are bad at expressing it,” she said.

Ms Lynch said there was “no absolute evidence” to support recent claims that the rate of suicide in Ireland is being underreported.

“We cannot make assumptions, for instance about single-vehicle accidents, and I think that’s where the undetermined deaths usually occur. We can only deal with the evidence as presented,” she said.

“If there is any indication that the death was self-induced or by suicide, then [CORONERS]do not have a reluctance to report that, even in the incidence where families would approach and say they would prefer if that verdict were not the verdict, coroners will do their duty.”

Call for private inquests

Meanwhile, suicide prevention charity Console has called on the Government to remove the legal requirement for a public hearing into every death, to reduce the trauma for relatives bereaved by suicide.

The charity’s founder and chief executive Paul Kelly said Ireland should look to Scotland and Northern Ireland, where inquests in suicide cases are only held in public if it is deemed to be in the public interest.

Mr Kelly said public inquests are unnecessarily intrusive, making grieving relatives “feel as if they are on being put on trial”.

“Traumatised families can be asked to give evidence, suicide notes can be made public and family members can be questioned about last conversations and the deceased’s state of mind,” he said.

“Deeply private information about drugs or alcohol in the deceased’s system, or if they had a row with someone before ending their life, can all be discussed in a public forum with the media in attendance.”

Recalling his own family’s experience of the coroner’s court after his sister died by suicide at the age of 21, Mr Kelly said public inquests can force relatives to relive the trauma of the death.

“I was sworn in and cross examined, and it was all over the papers the next day. We were just an ordinary family who had lost a little sister. We were grieving and were in great pain, and it crushed my mum that morning when she saw our story in the papers.”

He said the “trial-like” aspect of a public inquest adds to the stigma of death by suicide, “which harks back to the days before suicide was decriminalised in 1993”.

Responding to the call by Console to hold private inquests in suicide cases, Ms Lynch said she would be concerned such a move may create new stigma for relatives.

“We are a very small country… if one inquest were held in public and another in private, it wouldn’t take a lot to deduce that the one that was held in private was a suspicion of suicide. I am not certain that would be helpful,” she said.

The Department of Health has received more than 250 submissions for a new National Suicide Prevention Strategy, due to be published in November, which “will be very broad and wide-ranging, but at the same time very focused in relation to prevention”, the Minister said.

It has not been proposed to increase funding allocated to mental health services in the upcoming Budget, Ms Lynch said, but this may be revised “in the event that there are specific actions in the new framework that would need additional money”.