Call for urgent suicide prevention taskforce as NI strategy remains on hold

Figures show suicide rate in the North is on the rise, to the highest rate in the UK

Belfast had the highest suicide rate in 2014/16, at 22 people per 100,000 of the population. Photograph: Getty

Belfast had the highest suicide rate in 2014/16, at 22 people per 100,000 of the population. Photograph: Getty


Northern Ireland’s former environment minister, whose sister died by suicide, has called for a suicide prevention taskforce to be established urgently in the North.

Foyle MLA Mark H Durkan’s sister Gay, a nurse and a niece of former SDLP leader Mark Durkan, died in 2011.

“One of the most difficult things is I often wrack my brain, wondering what I could have seen, or said, or done for Gay,” Mr Durkan said.

“One of the worst things about suicide is the unanswered questions, the self-interrogation which leaves a lot of families, friends and work colleagues forever struggling for answers.”

He has written to the permanent secretary of the North’s Department of Health, Richard Pengelly, saying “urgent action” is needed.

“People are stopping me in the streets, people are contacting me on social media, they are coming into my office to talk about the issue of suicide,” he said.

In his letter, Mr Durkan said the taskforce he is calling for should embrace a number of statutory agencies along with community and voluntary organisations and representatives from education.

Meanwhile, a strategy for tackling Northern Ireland’s growing rate of suicide is on hold as a consequence of the collapse of the Stormont Executive.

The director of the Belfast Samaritans, Robert Bell, said the implementation of an updated programme, Protect Life 2, has been stymied for more than a year because there is no minister in position to give it the go-ahead.

Northern Ireland has the highest suicide rate in the UK. The latest three-year rate for 2014/16 is 15.9 deaths per 100,000 population.

Mr Bell insisted there would be more focus on and urgency about the problem if it was happening anywhere else.

“It annoys me. It’s what I call the weather forecasting syndrome. The national forecaster says it’s a sunny day in London, so they draw a veil over the clouds in Scotland or here.”

The latest figures show the suicide rate in the North is again on the rise, after a slight fall.

The total number of suicides was 297 in 2016, according to the Public Health Agency; it rose to 305 last year. From an average of about 160 suicides a year during the 1990s, the annual rate has almost doubled to about 300 every year.

“An awful lot of effort has gone on, and a good part of it aimed at people already working with suicide in the system, whether people involved in mental health or GPs.

“We have a strategy sitting ready and able to go yet we are not seeing anything effective being achieved on the ground.

“The budget lines have all been agreed and the parameters set. The first Protect Life programme ran its course and then was being revised and reviewed with a number of consultations. But without a minister it cannot be signed off on.”

Mr Bell said many theories are put forward to explain why the suicide rate soared in the years after the Belfast Agreement.

“It would seem that a society which is embattled, no matter how odd it seems, brings a sense of certainty and a sense of a purpose to life which is removed and people then feel an increased doubt,” he said.


“We are also seeing the transmission of inter-generational stress and the other major factor, without a doubt, is deprivation.”

For the three-year period 2014/16 the rate of suicide in the most deprived areas in the North was approximately 3½ times the rates in the least deprived areas.

Belfast had the highest suicide rate in 2014/16, at 22 people per 100,000 of the population, with particular spikes in the north and west areas of the city.

The next highest were the local government areas of Mourne and Down, as well as Antrim and Newtownabbey and the northwest area, including Derry and Strabane.

Siobhan O’Neill, who is professor of mental health sciences at Ulster University, has undertaken the North’s biggest-ever study of mental health.

She has argued that the most significant factor in the high number of suicides is the legacy of the Troubles, with almost 40 per cent of the population having witnessed a traumatic event, and 18 per cent having seen someone who has died or been seriously injured in violent circumstances.

“All the evidence we have shows that people in Northern Ireland are re-interpreting what they have seen, or even done, and it retraumatises them,” she said.

*If you are affected by any of the issues raised, you can contact Pieta House at 1800-247247, or Samaritans by phoning 116123 for free, texting 087-2609090 or emailing