Midlands suicides: ‘Being alone in the storm is a dreadful reality’
Locals have raised concerns after an increase in people taking their own lives in the area
Fr Paddy Byrne: ‘The idea of conversation, the idea of friendship, is being redefined in western culture.’ Photograph: James Flynn/APX
Maura Murphy, principal of St Mary’s in Portlaoise: ’The emotional fallout when young people have . . . looked into the holes of graves and you wonder what kind of hope can you offer.’ Photograph: James Flynn/APX
On the final day before the summer holidays last year, a young teen at St Mary’s CBS school in Portlaoise took his own life.
In an instant, what should have been a joyous day of giddy expectation for the fun to be had over the long summer break became something else, something altogether darker.
But worse, very much worse, was to come.
A few weeks later one of that boy’s friends from primary school also took his life.
Then, at the end of the summer, a third boy, who also knew the other two from their primary school days, also took his life.
Four weeks later, family and friends gathered for the month’s mind for that child.
After Mass had been celebrated and the tragedy of a life lost in such numbing circumstances recalled amid the solace of faith, the male head of the house went home and died by suicide.
Maura Murphy, principal at St Mary’s and herself a mother of five, says the impact on pupils of one of their own killing themselves, and on their teachers, can be catastrophic.
“The emotional fallout when young people have buried and looked into the holes of graves and you wonder what kind of hope can you offer,” she says.
Somehow, suicide has been “normalised” in recent years.
“The amount of young people who actually see it as an option – and it’s nothing to do with where they’re from – if things go sideways . . . Yesterday a child told me he has a message from someone who was going to kill themselves. It was an option; now it’s actually part of the culture.”
Josephine Rigney, the suicide prevention officer for Laois and Offaly with the Health Service Executive (HSE), knows from her professional experience in the counties what is going on.
“There does seem to be a spike, an unexpected rise, in the midlands. We all experience challenges and stress in our lives. We are all individuals. Some of us can deal with toughness in our lives, but others find it tougher,” she says.
Both women were contributing to a discussion, opened this week by the curate of St Peter and St Paul’s Church in Portlaoise, Fr Paddy Byrne.
He sounded an alarm for himself because he fears he is becoming desensitised to suicide such is the scale of the phenomenon.
He also sounded an alarm for wider society which he believes needs to take a long, hard look at what is going on and ask itself a direct question: “Why?”
Fr Byrne’s church does not look much like a place with problems. On Thursday, inside the attractive 50-year-old church with its large circular altar signalling inclusivity, a large group of well-turned out schoolchildren, bathed in orange sunlight streaming through a stained-glass window, were preparing for their First Communion.
Yet earlier in the day there had been yet another funeral for a life ended tragically; the seventh, or possibly eighth, in recent days.
“The week before there had been another,” Fr Paddy says, going on to enumerate some of them – “a man and a woman [separately] in Mountmellick; a woman in Clonaslee; a woman in Portarlington . . . ”
St Peter and St Paul’s has all the appearance of a really vibrant parish.
On a midweek morning the large and well-designed parish centre was abuzz with activity as mums with prams and young children chatted, played and drank coffee.
The semi-circular centre with light flooding in through large windows is full of comfy chairs for lounging in, coffee tables and chairs, a friendly reception desk with lots of useful information and a shop full of cards, small gifts, candles, incense sticks and some religious ephemera.
The centre is closer to a coffee shop than a place selling sacred medals, Mass cards and refreshments.
Upstairs, off the gallery that overlooks the main area, there are some large function rooms where community groups can meet.
There is also a spirituality room, a timber-clad, beehive-shaped space without religious symbols or windows – a womb-like room into which one may go simply to sit and think.
And there are no fewer than six “listening rooms”, small spaces with two chairs and a little table, where a person may go and unburden themselves to a non-judgmental counsellor.
The listening rooms are needed, but it would seem that more people need to use them if the number of suicides, which Fr Paddy sees spiralling out of control, is to be reduced.
But why the spike and is there a pattern?
“The pattern is rather obvious. The one common denominator is individuals, male and female, middle-aged and young, remained silent in carrying a huge burden,” he says
“The biggest pattern is that none of these individuals were able to call for help. There is obviously a correlation between having suicidal feelings and having mental health issues.
“But lots of people have suicidal feelings, may never have been open about them, may never have registered with medication or correlated to mental illness.”
Fr Paddy adds: “I am also saying – and I mean this very sincerely – that there’s various degrees of mental illness but we all have it, at some level in our lives, and I think that we need to validate mental illness. It is part of our human fragility, our vulnerability.
“I think as a society that is the best way we can get rid of the taboo.
“Don’t be afraid to say I’m feeling depressed or I’m down in myself or I’m feeling a bit strange or I’ve had a bad afternoon: it’s okay not to be okay .
“It’s okay to feel shite. We all have that but in my experience in life the storm passes. But when we are alone in the storm it’s a dreadful reality.”
Apart from his experience as a priest, Fr Paddy has direct personal family experience of mental illness.
He is aged 42 and despite the burdens of comforting the afflicted, comes across as a man of optimism and hope, energy and commitment, a priest very much of the changing church of Pope Francis.
His brother has mental health issues and is on disability support.
“I’m a twin and he would be my anam cara, you know, your friend, your soulmate. I could write a book about it,” he says.
Fr Paddy sees two significant contributory factors to the rise in suicide: the ascent of social media and a reduced sense of the spiritual in society.
“My generation has a huge addiction to social media. They’re living on Facebook, they’re living on the computer. I see it in my own family, I see it everywhere.
“So, therefore, the idea of conversation, the idea of friendship, is being redefined in western culture. The idea of rambling – that’s an old rural tradition – where you had a neighbour and you would know them, you would converse with them.
“Here, in a busy urban parish, I knock on a door, maybe looking for a bereaved family, and I ask, ‘do you know where Mary so-and-so is’ [but] they haven’t a clue who their neighbours are.
“So, there’s a social anonymity after building up; people no longer have that ability, or perhaps time because of addiction to social media, to have a proper conversation.”
He does not proselytise for Christianity but detects a diminution in the capacity of individuals to derive pleasure, comfort and perhaps meaning from simple things, even in the occasional loneliness of his own life as a celibate priest.
“I saw a huge moon at 2am on Thursday morning last. It excited me. I got up. I looked at it for ages. I made a cup of tea, and came back down and looked at it,” he says.
“I think we are losing our wonder and awe . . . I think there is a crisis of spirituality, of embracing a positive vision of self, of other, of seeing beyond the moment that is now, of valuing the innate gift of who I am . . . I’m a little sad that the poor old daffodils are dying, but then there’s tulips coming up. Harmless things can give me a lift.”
He and Maura Murphy also see family breakdown as having a significant role in unsettling young people, diminishing their sense of self-worth and contributing, ultimately, to suicidal tendencies, together with a range of other causes, including alcohol, drug addiction and financial worries.
“Social media spreads ideas that we wouldn’t have allowed before,” says Murphy.
“But there’s a huge amount of other pressures too: money, unemployment, losing a home and family breakdown. There’s no way you can hide these things from kids.”
Both praise the social service supports that are there, but question whether there are enough.
“The amount of young people they need to reach is far greater than they do reach,” says Murphy.
Moment of gloom
The capacity to see beyond the moment of gloom, of seemingly insurmountable challenge, is part of what the HSE’s Josephine Rigney seeks to stimulate by applying the various suicide-help programmes in the Connecting for Life reduction strategy.
This includes encouraging interventions with those feared to be at risk of suicide and helping those bereaved by suicide cope with their loss.
A training and information programme offered to community groups and individuals called SafeTalk (suicide alertness for everyone) is based around four key imperatives: tell (the person at risk should articulate their feelings), ask (the person they tell should engage the person in conversation), listen and keep safe (the person at risk must be helped access services).
Deeper training is also available (applied suicide-intervention skills training) for gardaí, youth workers and other professionals likely to be confronted by suicide, threatened suicide or have a need to be aware of the early signs of a drift within a person’s outlook towards choosing suicide.
Teachers at St Mary’s CBS, which has 800 pupils, have had to increase their own awareness of pre-suicide thoughts among pupils, and the school has two counsellors.
“I can’t get over in the past two years or so how much of an option it is for young people. We deal with so much mental health issues in the school. This is the new war,” says Murphy.
If you or someone you know needs someone to talk to, contact the Samaritans on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org; www.yourmentalhealth.ie has a directory of mental health services. The number of Console’s 24-hour helpline is 1800-247247 or find your nearest Pieta House at www.pieta.ie