Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's suicide epidemic claims young lovers as two more of its victims

By David McKittrick, Ireland Correspondent
03 August 2004

Her body was discovered on Sunday morning, close to the grave of the partner who had taken his life 11 weeks ago, in a profoundly poignant tableau intertwining love and death.

Fiona Barnes, just turned 18 and fondly described as "a wee kitten", had decided she could not live without her boyfriend, Michael McComb. And so she went, as she believed, to join him. She was found dead in a West Belfast cemetery; she had hanged herself from a tree near his final resting place.

The deaths of the two teenagers were redolent of a Shakespearean tragedy. They were childhood sweethearts and were so passionate about each other that friends referred to them as Romeo and Juliet.

Fiona's father, Aidan, said yesterday: "She took Michael's death very badly. She could not handle it. I would say she had thought about it - I reckon she sat beside his grave all night."

The two deaths are the latest in a string of young suicides in Belfast, many of them in the poorer north and west of the city.

Although no precise figures are available, so many people have taken their own lives that their loved ones last night gathered for a special cross-community service in Belfast.

The event's organiser, Irene Sherry, explained: "No one knows the sleepless nights or unspoken tears of the countless numbers of those affected. Nobody knows the silent stories of all these people."

As is so often the case in these areas, families suffer multiple blows. The McComb family were first afflicted in 2002, when their daughter Debbie, 15, was knocked down and killed by a so-called "joyrider" in a stolen car.

Debbie was one of more than a dozen victims of this practice, which is another of the deadly scourges of west and north Belfast. The driver of the vehicle which killed her was later jailed for nine years, prompting Debbie's grieving relatives to helpset up a support group, Families Bereaved Through Car Crime.

When further tragedy was visited on the family 11 weeks ago, with the suicide of Debbie's brother Michael, many assumed there was a connection between the two deaths.

Friends of the family have said, however, that Michael was troubled by incidents in his life dating back many years, and that they do not believe that his suicide was a consequence of Debbie's death.

The pity is that Michael's childhood demons should have overwhelmed such a romance. "Their friends called them Romeo and Juliet," a family friend said yesterday. "Ever since they started going out with each other they were inseparable. Fiona's friends said they hardly saw her because she preferred to spend all her time with Michael."

The couple moved into a small flat in a housing estate, with those who knew them thinking they had settled down well. There was talk about them starting a family. They had booked a holiday, and were this week supposed to be in Spain together.

But all was not well, and Michael had made a previous suicide attempt. His death, when it came, was devastating for both the McComb and Barnes families, but most of all for Fiona, who took to spending a great deal of time mourning at his grave.

According to Michael's mother, Mary: "Fiona was like a daughter to me. She was like a wee kitten. We were all so close to her. Fiona was so loveable. I treated her as if she was one of my own children. She looked forward to life so much. She only turned 18 last week and she touched the lives of everyone she met, she was so loveable and kind-hearted."

She added: "It doesn't seem like this torment is ever going to end for both of our families. This is too much."

The Barnes family had arranged for Fiona to have help in the wake of Michael's death. Aidan Barnes said: "We got her counselling and all, but more or less the child had her own mind made up. She was broken-hearted over her boyfriend. She just couldn't handle it."

One friend who knew her well commented: "After Michael's death she never became her old self again. She just couldn't stand being without him."

Patricia McQuillan of Gatekeeping, a West Belfast suicide awareness and support group, said: "A lot of the evidence and research would show that, when someone is very determined to take their own life, in some circumstances there's very little we can do." A number of such groups, both official and voluntary, are active in Belfast and a series of initiatives are under way with the aim of preventing suicides and of helping those bereaved.

One local health authority has a suicide task group, with a suicide awareness co-ordinator, and has run advertising campaigns and other initiatives. But those involved complain that the funding available is never enough. Northern Ireland has a high suicide rate compared with Britain, and parts of Belfast are regarded as particularly problematical.

Young men seem most at risk, especially in areas which suffer most from poverty, unemployment and the effects of the troubles.

Earlier this year up to a dozen suicides were reported in north Belfast, centring on the Catholic area of Ardoyne. Locals put the blame on a mixture of deprivation and paramilitary violence.

After this series of deaths special measures were brought in to discourage more "copycat" suicides, with parents and others being given advice on how to spot danger signs among young people.

Last month there was another prominent suicide in Ardoyne, when Mary Geraldine Cassidy, a 46-year-old mother of six children, took her own life following what was described as a vendetta against her family. Last year her son killed himself.

She was said to have been attacked a number of times. A relative said she had never got over the death of her son, adding: "She never got time to grieve, probably because she was getting trouble constantly."


* Experts say the Northern Ireland suicide rate is the highest in the UK.
* The most up-to-date figures ­ for 2001 ­ show the rate is 26 deaths per 100,000 of population for young males. This compared with a UK-wide figure of 15 deaths per 100,000. The male suicide rate was 21 per 100,000, compared to 19 per 100,000 across the UK. In north Belfast, between 11 and 13 suicides were recorded within a few months earlier this year.
* There were 5,910 suicides and undetermined deaths recorded in the UK in 2001, of which 132 were in Northern Ireland. The majority of those taking their lives are young males, butauthorities say they are also concerned about suicides among the older population.

Source: Independent

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