We may wish to ignore suicide, but that won’t make it go away
Prevention officer estimates that two people take their lives every day in Ireland
A suicide-prevention campaign in the past featured Irish rugby stars Rob Kearney, Shane Horgan and Keith Gleeson. Photograph: Frank Miller
On Tuesday, a HSE suicide prevention officer was reported by this newspaper as revealing that provisional figures for last year show a 20 per cent rise in suicides compared with the numbers recorded for 2011.
Josephine Rigney said that the “true figure” was probably 20 per cent higher again, as many deaths are still not being classified as suicide. She estimated that there are two suicides every day in Ireland.
Maria Whyte, the Galway manager of the national charity Console, suggested that Ireland needs to tackle the stigma around suicide. She is absolutely right. As a start, we should think of affording this tragic and growing phenomenon the attention it deserves. As one example, there might well have been sound reasons for The Irish Times giving fewer than 200 words to Ms Rigney’s comments, and putting them at the bottom of page 7 in the Briefs section.
But, irrespective of what those reasons were, the positioning of a story in a newspaper is taken as an indication of its importance. And in this case the suggestion appeared to be that, in the grand scheme of things, the suicide rate in Ireland is of no great import at all.
According to Ms Rigney, 525 people took their own lives during 2012, an increase of 100 on the previous year. If, as she speculates, this is 20 per cent short, then the true figure is in the region of 630, which is truly shocking. But what can be done to reverse this upward trend? It appears certain that avoiding the subject isn’t the answer. We have tried that approach (albeit by default), but still the figures keep rising. I am well aware of the fear that highlighting suicide can lead to an increase in incidents; for a long time I subscribed to this view myself.
But the hard fact is that while we have been studiously downplaying these tragedies, the island of Ireland, North and South, has become a suicide hot spot. Far worse than ignoring suicide is the stigmatising of it, which must surely add to its frequency. A person who is seriously considering taking his or her own life will be extremely loath to confide in a friend or a family member, never mind to seek professional help, while society considers suicidal feelings to be at best a sign of weakness, and at worst something to be ashamed of.
More broadly, while suicide remains a taboo subject we will continue avoiding a much-needed open and honest public discussion on the subject, its main causes and what can be done to address them. At present, it’s as though there is a belief that if we ignore suicide it will somehow go away of its own accord.
But how precisely is that supposed to happen?
What specifically are we waiting for?
Is there a belief that an upturn in the economic fortunes of the country will do the trick?
If so, it is sadly misplaced.
Some of the highest recorded suicide rates in Ireland were during the years when the country was at its most prosperous. There are personal and sometimes localised factors behind each suicide, but there might also be a common thread linking most of them. Is there something (or a number of things) particular to our modern age that is driving increasing numbers of people over the edge? Something that can be ameliorated? We will never know the answer if we don’t make a deliberate and sustained effort to find out.
There is, of course, a hangover from previously unsympathetic religious attitudes to suicide to contend with. But society (and in many respects the churches themselves) has left other outdated religious beliefs behind. Surely we are capable of doing the same in relation to suicide. Although, it must be said, before we can begin to de-stigmatise suicide we must learn to accept mental illness as a naturally occurring ailment from which none of us are completely immune.
Feelings of failure
It is a sad truth that bereaved families are among the people least likely to publicly acknowledge that a loved one has died by his or her own hand. This is wholly understandable. It is not difficult to imagine the mental torture that some family members must go through. Their irrational feelings of ineptitude, failure and guilt; wondering how the “warning signs” that seem so obvious in hindsight could have been missed.
Blind to the fact that even if such signs ever did exist, in most cases they would never have led a reasonable person to suspect that suicide was imminent. For many a family, at least at the beginning, to ask them to be open and forthright about the suicide of a loved one is like asking them to admit to a fundamental failure. That is too much to expect.
But for the rest of us, there are no excuses for ignoring the steadily increasing suicide rate in Ireland. This should be of major concern to all of us, and be treated as such.