You might think from the sudden outbreak of discussion about suicide that the problem had recently become worse. In fact, our suicide problem has – in particular aspects – been deeply serious for two decades.
Our recorded suicide rate doubled, from about 6 per 100,000 between the early 1980s and the turn of the millennium. Despite a significant growth in population during the Celtic Tiger years, the number of annual suicides has actually fallen slightly since then.
In 2011, the year for which the most complete recent figures are available, there were 525 suicides. Ten years earlier, in 2001, 519 suicides were recorded. Since the population grew dramatically in the intervening decade, it is difficult to understand why there is now an impression that suicide has recently been exhibiting a dramatic increase.
Nor is under-reporting as distorting a factor as is sometimes asserted. The bald suicide figure of media reports doesn’t include deaths attributed to “undetermined intent” – internationally regarded as closely related to suicide and often included in more broadly defined suicide figures.
For an accurate picture of deaths attributable to self-harm, it is necessary to factor in this element. In 2011, for example, although the conventional indicator showed a slight year-on-year increase, the number of deaths from events of “undetermined intent” fell by 30 per cent on 2010. Hence, the overall self-harm death toll in that year was not significantly different to the preceding year.
The aggregate numbers of deaths under the two headings totalled 626 in 2009, 609 in 2010 and 610 in 2011. Over the longer term, the per-capita figures indicate that the broadly defined suicide rate peaked in 2001 at 15.5 per 100,000 population and was down to 13.3 in 2011. The narrowly defined suicide rate (the standard media-reported statistic) peaked at 13.5 in 2001 and was down to 11.4 in 2011.
Of these figures, more than four-fifths have consistently been accounted for by male suicides, and, of these, a grotesquely disproportionate number were young men. For years, the level of suicide among young Irish male adults has been close to the highest in Europe. The graph for female suicide has remained horizontal for decades.
So, it is not that the levels or patterns of suicide have been dramatically changing for the worse. Nor is it that we are suddenly becoming aware of a problem that went unremarked heretofore.
It goes without saying that the families, neighbours and friends of the thousands who died at their own hands have been deeply aware of the issue. Travelling the highways and byways of Ireland, I have for years found it one of the most consistently mentioned issues. I have attended many funerals of suicide victims, mainly young men. Nobody can say that, at its grassroots, Irish society was unaware of the problem or unperturbed by it.
What is changing, then, is simply that the level and nature of media treatment of the topic has been catching up. Even more interesting is that the predominant characteristic of Irish suicide levels – that the victims are overwhelmingly males – is now occasionally alluded to in media discussions.
Right now, of course, there is a particular context in the story of Donal Walsh, the Kerry teenager who died from cancer this week in the wake of his powerful pleas to other young Irish people to value the lives they had been given. But I believe there is another factor at play, relating to the point I made here last week about the relationship between journalism and ideology.
For many years the media's approach to the suicide issue was to blandly report the figures while ignoring the hippopotamus in the hallway. Almost invariably, if the deeper nature problem was adverted to at all, it was in terms that served to divert into general questions concerning the mental health of "young people". Other analyses, especially those seeking to focus on problems specifically relating to males, were suppressed or dismissed.
I have long believed that issues affecting men would be permitted media time and space only when women began to adopt them. And so it has come to pass.
The other night on Prime Time , a number of young men, including the musician Bressie, were brought on to talk about their experience of various mental difficulties including, in Bressie's case, anxiety attacks.
But the discussion was overwhelmingly directed and conducted by women. The presenter was Miriam O'Callaghan – rather than, for instance, Pat Kenny. The featured Government Minister was Kathleen Lynch – rather than, say, James Reilly (who had been in studio for an earlier debate). Joan Freeman of Pieta House featured in a filmed package before the studio discussion.
But even in this newfound attention to suicide, the talk is still being directed away from ideologically controversial questions relating to men in this society. Mostly, the talk is about mental health – a tautological analysis that gets us nowhere. Nobody is impolite enough to ask: why, if the mental health analysis is to the point, might the average Irish man’s mental health be four to five times poorer than the average Irish woman’s?
There is no talk about what happens to men when their relationships break down, or what role Irish society and its institutions might be playing in that. There is no discussion of the possibility that suicide is, in many cases – far from the act of a disordered mind – a radically rational way of dealing with a particular understanding of reality.
And, of course, there is no talk about meaning – either relating to cultural signals transmitted to males as against females, or about the dilution of transcendent hope in our culture in recent years.
But at least the Irish media has started to talk about the hippopotamus in the hallway. We have every reason to hope that the giraffes in the garret might come in for discussion in another decade or two.