Lives lost to suicide on show


An artist and professor met families saddened by suicide, and have used treasured possessions in an exhibition that deepens understanding of such deaths, writes JOANNE HUNT

IT WAS A collaboration that started with 92 pieces of cloth shirt fragments – one for every young man who died by suicide in 2003.

The haunting installation, titled 21g, the mythical weight of the human soul, was about sparking a conversation, says its Clare-based creator, artist Seamus McGuinness.

“Suicide is a subject that hits the news every now and then but there is no sustained conversation.”

When McGuinness shared a photograph of his work with UCD professor of psychiatry Kevin Malone, who has worked in suicide research for 20 years, their worlds of art and medicine collided.

“We were both addressing the area of youth suicide and trying to understand it,” says Malone. “We both thought the statistics could only tell us so much.”

Malone was about to embark on his Suicide in Ireland survey, interviewing families of those aged under 35 who had died by suicide. Collaborating with McGuinness was an opportunity to get behind the statistics.

“I was using the language of art and Kevin was using the language of medicine,” says McGuinness. “We decided to combine methodologies to see if we could find a new language to articulate the presence of suicide in Ireland.”

Inviting participation from those affected by suicide, the pair began a process that, over four years, brought them to the kitchen tables of 104 bereaved families.

“I think it was important for us to go to their homes – that they would see the institutions coming to them,” says Malone.

“Often in the case of suicidal death, the institutions have failed people miserably,” says McGuinness. “We felt the best way would be to go and drink cups of tea in people’s houses . . . sometimes it went on for hours. They had control of the interview, it only ended when people stopped talking.”

Malone says that families expecting to be asked about the manner of the death were often surprised the pair were just as interested in the story of the life.

“One of the problems of suicide in Ireland is that people are defined by the manner of their death rather than who they were and what their life was,” says Malone. “Really we were backtracking from the tragedy to understand more about the lived life.”

Asked to donate anything associated with the lived life, on the understanding that McGuinness would include them in his Lived Lives exhibition, 62 of the families agreed.

“We got everything from photographs to a PlayStation, books, perfume – anything that a young person would have in their bedroom.”

But with anonymity central to research ethics, the personal nature of the items proved an initial stumbling block for UCD, where McGuinness had been appointed a scholar in suicide studies.

“The first thing families did was hand me an image of their deceased, so this whole idea of confidentiality and anonymity was compromised straight away,” he says.

When eventually one of the bereaved families addressed the college’s ethics committee, arguing that the secrecy and stigma sometimes surrounding suicide had to be breached, permission was granted to use the identities of the dead.

Also donated by a family was the debs dress of a daughter who had hanged herself weeks after the event.

“Another boy’s parents donated the gun that he shot himself with – and his guitar,” says McGuinness. “I wondered should this be shown in public, but his parents insisted. They said it was the reality of what happened.”

Taking four years to complete, a part of Malone’s and McGuinness’s work, Lost Childhoods – Young Lived Lives Lost to Suicide 2003-2008will be shared at the Merriman Summer School in Lisdoonvarna on Friday.

With this year’s summer school, titled Changing Irish Childhoods, their address and accompanying exhibition focuses on suicide in those aged under 18. Shockingly, such child suicides are on the rise.

“Fourteen out of the 83 under-35s who took their lives were children,” says Malone.

With no statistics on child suicide in Ireland to extrapolate his work, Malone reviewed CSO data comparing the years from 1993-1998 and from 2003-2008 to reveal a dramatic rise in suicides among children.

“There was a 40 per cent increase in the rate of suicide in 15- to 17-year-old boys and the rate has doubled in girls aged under 18,” he says. The rate of suicide has also doubled in those aged under 15.

Malone says of those children who had contact with mental health services, “their mental-health issues were being shoe-horned into an adult service environment”.

From interviews with the families of children with no history of mental illness, he says “all of them had experienced some type of significant humiliation in the six months prior to their death – either being bullied by a peer, an authority figure or being exposed to some kind of significant personal assault”.

Malone says the assault was often a robbery of a mobile phone or passport, “something that strips their identity or humiliates them in some way”.

In addition, almost half of the children who died had been exposed to one or more peer suicide deaths in the previous six months.

“Two of them were part of one cluster, but otherwise they were all part of separate clusters,” says Malone.

With Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald opening this year’s Merriman School by highlighting bullying, insufficient child-centred mental-health services and the need for an early warning response model that supports vigilance in communities, Malone and McGuinness are calling for change.

“With a doubling of the rate of young girls and a 40 per cent increase in young boys dying by suicide in the past 10 years, can we stand by and say we’ll keep doing what we are doing and hope for the best?” asks Malone.

“I don’t think so.”

The Merriman Summer School runs from August 17th-21st