Suicide watch: River patrol saving lives in Derry
In July, Foyle Search and Rescue dealt with 60 incidents as demand for its help rises
Foyle Search and Rescue out on the water
“I’m there, up to my knees in the water, and all I see are the blue flashing lights.”
Two years ago, Caolán Doherty attempted to take his own life.
“I’d had suicidal thoughts before, times when I would have walked across the bridge or along the Foyle and thought, I’ll just see what happens.
“I always got a phonecall from my mate, or ran into somebody, and I thought, I needed to see this person today. But that time, I was going to go to a place where I wasn’t going to run into anybody.”
Doherty was spotted by a fisherman who called Foyle Search and Rescue – a Derry-based suicide prevention charity that patrols the river.
“They got me, they got me the help I needed, and the fightback started there.”
In the simplest terms, this is life and death. How many more?
Today he speaks about his own experience to encourage other young men to talk to each other about their own mental health issues.
“If I had have killed myself, the pain wouldn’t have stopped, it would only be passed on to somebody else,” Doherty tells a packed hall in Ballymagroarty community centre in Derry.
“I’d be getting messages two, three times a week, and 90 per cent of them are from males. We need to normalise the conversation among young men. Pull your friend aside and say, ‘Look, this is how I’m feeling, this is what’s going on with me’.”
The bulk of Doherty’s audience are young men dressed in football gear. It is Saturday afternoon, and they are about to compete in an annual tournament in memory of two young men from the area who took their own lives: Mark McCann (17), who died in 2005, and his friend Conor Carlyle, who died two years later.
McCann’s mother, Lorraine Curran, describes her son as “a quiet fella who loved his friends”.
She says: “I live with Mark’s death on a daily basis. Part of my heart is with Mark in heaven.
“If he wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed to talk about his feelings with his friends, would Mark be alive today? I don’t know. In the simplest terms, this is life and death. How many more?”
Mental health is a big issue in Northern Ireland. On average, one in five of the population will experience mental health problems at some point in their lives, and that risk is increased in areas such as Ballymagroarty and other parts of Derry where there are high levels of social and economic deprivation.
Linked to this is poor educational attainment, a lack of employment prospects and problems with drug and alcohol abuse, as well as the inter-generational impact of the Troubles.
Local neighbourhood regeneration officer Billy Page was a Sinn Féin councillor in Ballymagroarty when McCann and Carlyle took their own lives.
“There was a deep sense of hurt and grief within the community,” he says.
“The issues here are the same as they are right across the city. We have deprivation, we have isolation, we have drugs, alcohol and if you have that, you’re going to have some kind of issues.”
In Derry, much of the public focus is on the river Foyle. In July, Foyle Search and Rescue dealt with 60 incidents, which included 11 people who were rescued from the river, 22 who were brought back from railings or the river’s edge, and 26 people in distress.
The charity also recovered a body from the river, that of 19-year-old Derry hurler Aodhán O’Donnell.
According to Foyle Search and Rescue, his death was the 12th on the river in 16 months; on Saturday, another man who had been pulled from the river two days previously also died.
The highest percentage of those they deal with are in the 16-35 age category, although this year they have come into contact with 14-year-olds, and an 82-year-old who took his own life.
“It’s becoming too regular,” says Stephen Twells, the chairman of Foyle Search and Rescue.
“The number of searches and incidents on the Foyle are increasing.”
He is unsure why this is the case, although he acknowledges that additional CCTV cameras along the river have made it easier to identify people in distress.
“We’re dealing with youngsters with relationship problems, who are being bullied, who are maybe dealing with sexual or gender issues. I don’t think there is a specific reason.”
A project, Our Future Foyle, aims to improve the spaces around the banks and bridges of the Foyle and to promote their use for wellbeing and community events. It is supported by the North’s Public Health Agency as well as the local community, voluntary and public and private sectors.
“The perception is that there are no services out there,” says Twells. “There are services, and a lot is being done behind the scenes by the likes of the police and the City Centre Initiative in Derry, but often it’s just too slow.
“There needs to be a joined-up approach to dealing with suicide in the city, and the fact that there is no Stormont in place at the moment, that’s a big problem.”
This year, ahead of the football tournament in her son’s memory, Curran began collecting shoes – 444 pairs, to represent all those who have died by suicide in the Derry and Strabane area since Mark’s death in 2005 and the publication of the most recent suicide figures from 2016.
“Sometimes you have to have the shock factor to make people realise that for every pair of shoes, a person has died and it has an impact on 60 other people – their immediate family, their friends, their community, their school.
A paediatric nurse, she wants to see the establishment of a suicide crisis centre with follow-up care, but fears this will not happen while Northern Ireland remains without a government.
“The restoration of the Assembly is imperative, it is critical,” she says.
As Curran walks to the pitch at the start of the tournament, around her are hundreds of people who have come to show their support, from Sinn Féin MLAs to the local Sisters of Mercy to her son’s friends.
Curran meets the father of Mark’s friend Conor, Hilary Carlyle; the tournament is named in their sons’ honour. They embrace.
“Our boys,” says Carlyle. “They’re never too far away.”