Suicide counselling service at risk: ‘If they think you care, they will care’

Northwest Stop offers 24-hour service but can no longer survive on voluntary funding alone

Sean Fallon and his wife Carmel  at their Co Leitrim home. Photograph: Brian Farrell

Sean Fallon and his wife Carmel at their Co Leitrim home. Photograph: Brian Farrell

 

Sean Fallon was drinking a mug of tea the last time he chatted to his son Kevin, who pulled up outside the family home near Drumkeeran, Co Leitrim, at 7.40am, and opened the window for a chat.

His son had been planning to check on sheep in Rossinver that morning. The day before he had asked his father if he would like to come along. However, he declined. Fifteen years later, he still worries about that decision.

However, it was an early start, and he had been working hard all week on a building job. He did offer to go to Longford with the 24-year-old later in the day. Still, it’s “one regret”, he says now.

“He left our house, but he turned left instead of right,” muses Sean. Less than an hour later he and another son found Kevin’s body after the alarm had been raised.

Kevin, the father of a young daughter, had called one of his brothers and appeared to be saying goodbye. “My eldest son rang me after Kevin left and asked if he had called. He was worried.”

Frantic search

Following a frantic search, they spotted Kevin’s car at 8.30am outside a friend’s shed. Within moments, their lives were turned upside down. Fifteen years on, the pain has not eased.

Eight months after the death, Sean and his wife Carmel joined forces with other bereaved local families to do something about Co Leitrim’s staggering rate of suicide, still the third highest in the country.

Now called Northwest Stop, the organisation has a team of 18 counsellors and sees people across Counties Leitrim, Sligo, Donegal, Mayo, Roscommon, Longford, Fermanagh and Cavan.

With the other three teenagers it was probably something they did not want to talk to their parents about

Dermot Lahiff, a counsellor who co-ordinates the service, believes 1,500 lives have been saved since it began in 2005. Today, however, it is running out of money, and could close within six months.

Though mental health waiting lists are ever-growing, Northwest Stop’s volunteers are proud that their round-the-clock helpline ensures a counsellor’s help within 24 hours, many within just a few hours.

Sean Fallon and his wife Carmel in their Co Leitrim home with a picture of their son Kevin, who took his own life. Photograph: Brian Farrell
Sean Fallon and his wife Carmel in their Co Leitrim home with a picture of their son Kevin, who took his own life. Photograph: Brian Farrell

That is a better service than ones on offer from well-known, better-funded agencies, says Tom O’Reilly, chairman of Northwest Stop. The organisation does not get HSE funding, but can no longer survive on voluntary funding alone.

Last year, it got more than 1,000 calls. At least five people a week received one-to-one counselling. Everyone in need is offered eight free sessions. Many will not need all of them, but anyone needing more “won’t be turned away”.

Bank holiday weekends are often the worst time. Over a recent one, O’Reilly got a 2am call from gardaí wondering if could he help with a young man who was in distress and who had made a previous suicide attempt.

“Tom [O’Reilly] got out of bed and talked him down,” explained Sean Fallon.

O’Reilly, a farmer from Blacklion and former chairman of Cavan GAA who still coaches teams, is always contactable by phone when he is needed.

The day after helping the young man, O’Reilly accidentally dropped his mobile phone into a bucket of water when out feeding sheep. For hours he was frantic, fearing the young man might need to get back in touch.

Sometimes, he is anxious when young players fail to show up for a game – not because he is desperate to win, but because it might mean someone is feeling low.

Five teenagers, aged 14 to 17, have contacted Sean Fallon in the last seven months. Two came to him directly. Sometimes a parent, a sibling, an aunt or a friend reaches out first.

Two of the teenagers were in deep crisis. “With the other three it was probably something they did not want to talk to their parents about,” the 68-year-old believes. All of them saw a counsellor.

People of all ages

Suicidal thoughts are shared by people of all ages. Sean Fallon’s best friend, who arrived at the scene after he had found his son, and someone who was then a tower of strength, took his own life four years later. Married with three children, the man had made two previous attempts.

Tom O’Reilly says they know they will not be able to save everyone, but he believes “if they think you care, they will care”.

O’Reilly was appointed chairman of Northwest Stop in July 2016 because it was then considered wise to have someone not directly affected by suicide at the helm. However, within 24 hours, a beloved nephew in Mayo had taken his own life.

Everything from rural isolation to drugs, alcohol, and financial strain makes people vulnerable. Sexual abuse, too, has left deep scars. Such people are referred for specialist help when they call.

Shockingly, Northwest Stop has encountered children under 10 with suicidal ideation. There are referred to counsellors who use play therapy and other specialist techniques.

I can’t not answer my phone in the middle of the night, just in case

But each story is different. O’Reilly has come across middle-aged women forced out of their jobs by bullying – the tormentors in each case were 30-something women on a fast track to the top.

Sometimes, older people, men in particular, “literally lose the will to live” after a spouse dies. A bereaved farmer “might not see another person for a month”, he says: “Isolation is a terrible problem.”

The late Kevin Fallon. Photograph: Brian Farrell
The late Kevin Fallon. Photograph: Brian Farrell

Young men addicted to online gambling can run up “mind-boggling debts”, while teenagers can now easily get their hands on drugs in the local village, or when their college-going pals come home at the weekend.

Indignity too far

Some farmers devastated by the fodder crisis were then accused of neglecting their animals, an indignity too far for those who took pride in their stock, according to O’Reilly.

Northwest Stop encourages people to keep an eye out for others in trouble. O’Reilly himself constantly receives texts. No bleep on the phone goes unchecked.

“You’re relieved when it’s only a fellow saying he can’t make training,” he said. “I can’t not answer my phone in the middle of the night, just in case.”

Northwest Stop manages to generate up to €50,000 a year from fundraising. However, they spend over €70,000, as counsellors have to be paid, even if at a reduced rate.

“If we have to close down there will be more suicide in Leitrim and God help those who have to deal with it,” said Sean Fallon.

In a statement, the HSE said that in respect of funding of services in the mental health area, applications are assessed by the relevant Area Mental Health Management Team to determine whether they meet the criteria particular to the type of grant being sought. Individual organisations can apply to the HSE for funding under Section 39 of the Health Act or under National Lottery Grant Application system. 

“Grants are awarded , or not,  based on the outcome of this assessment”, said the statement. 

Northwest Stop is contactable at 086 7772009

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