Daily Ireland

Repairing despair

North Belfast hit the headlines in February last year when it was revealed 13 young men had committed suicide in the area over a six-week period. Media reports at the time dubbed the district, which has long been subject of deprivation and division, the “suicide capital of the North”.
The statistics spoke for themselves, with 18-year-old Bernard Cairns taking his own life just hours after attending the funeral of another 18-year-old suicide victim, Anthony O’Neill.
The chilling chain of events that unfolded in north Belfast coincided with the news that suicides among males aged 25 to 34 had increased by 104 per cent in the North of Ireland and 30 per cent in the South between 1992 and 2002, giving Ireland one of the highest youth suicide rates in the European Union according to the Samaritans.
Twelve months later, north Belfast is still struggling to come to terms with last year’s tragedies.
“The suicides we saw last winter had a cumulative effect on the community,” says a spokesman for Survivors of Trauma, a Belfast-based organisation that deals with those affected by conflict and suicide.
“Since then, we have tried to meet the needs of local residents but the response from the relevant agencies has been poor. Suicide still comes under the banner of mental illness in the North, meaning that there is little or no money to sufficiently deal with the problem.”
There have been some positive steps, however, with a host of initiatives set up to lend support to anyone affected by suicide or those thinking about ending their lives.
One such organisation is Pips – Public Initiative for the Prevention of Suicide and Self-Harm. It was set up in April 2003 following the death of the local teenager Philip “Pip” McTaggart.
Jo Murphy, health and social wellbeing development officer with the North Belfast Partnership, says, “Pips was established in response to the number of suicides taking place at the time, particularly in north Belfast.
“We named ourselves after Philip McTaggart as a way of personalising suicide and to show that, behind every death, there is a victim.”
The group includes community workers, concerned families, and members of the North and West Belfast Health and Social Services Trust. It works closely with local residents to deliver information and guidance to those affected by suicide and depression.
Ms Murphy says, “Our aim is to encourage those in trouble to seek help, to act as a ‘listening ear’ and to signpost people towards the support they need.
“On a ground level, we carry out home visits, and some of our members are trained counsellors. We want to make our community more aware of suicidal behaviour by advising them of the warning signs to look out for in the people closest to them.”
North Belfast is battling to make sense of last year’s events but the reasons why so many of the district’s teenagers chose to end their lives are still unclear.
“There are lots of theories for why people commit suicide but no hard evidence to back them up,” says Paul Corcoran, deputy director of the Cork-based National Suicide Research Foundation.
“The move away from religion and the fact that suicide is no longer the taboo it once was could mean that it is now seen as an option for someone in distress.
“Alcohol and drug use have also increased but again there is no strong indication that this is directly linked to rising suicide levels.”
It has been suggested that, in the North of Ireland, the prospect of paramilitary violence has played a part in the recent spate of youth suicides.
A spokesman for Survivors of Trauma says, “We ourselves have negotiated with paramilitaries to see if there are alternative ways to solve issues without resorting to the punishment beating of youngsters.
“In some cases, it may be fair to say that the possibility of paramilitary attack has been the straw that broke the camel’s back but there are also other causes at work.”
North Belfast is not the only community striving to control levels of self-inflicted death among young men.
Provisional figures for 2003 released by the Central Statistics Office in the Republic suggest that suicide has now overtaken road traffic accidents as the leading cause of death among Irish males aged 15 to 34.
Overall suicide rates appear to have fallen, however, with 162 people taking their own lives in the North in 2002 and a further 444 in the South – slight decreases from previous years.
John Connolly, a consultant psychiatrist and honorary secretary of the Irish Association of Suicidology, says, “For many years, suicide rates in the South were low at around five deaths per 100,000 people.
“By the late 1960s and early 1970s, they began to steadily increase. The figures reached a peak in 1998 when we had 13 suicides per 100,000 people. They have since fallen back to around 11 deaths per 100,000 people.
“It is not yet clear whether this is a statistical dip or the beginning of a new trend but the rise in youth suicide continues to keep the issue in the forefront of peoples’ minds.”
The reasons why young men rather than young women are more likely to commit suicide has been the subject of much debate among experts. “In the South of Ireland, there are 4.7 male suicides for every one female death,” said Dr Connolly.
“This is due to a number of factors – for example, women talk about their feelings more, they drink less and take fewer drugs and they are more adaptable to the employment market.
“They are also more religious, they consult doctors regularly and they are less inclined to try# to take their own lives by violent means, giving them a higher chance of surviving suicide.”
The National Suicide Research Foundation’s Paul Corcoran, whose organisation researches the phenomena of suicide and self-harm (or parasuicide), says, “We have taken part in several studies with young men and, when asked what they do when they are stressed, most say they get angry or turn to drink and drugs rather than talk to friends or family.”
For those who are feeling depressed or suicidal or are worried about someone they know, there is help available from a range of specially trained organisations.
“If you are concerned about someone you know, approach them and ask them what’s going on,” said Barry McGale, a suicide-awareness co-ordinator with the Western Health and Social Services Board.
“Adopt a broken-record approach and keep on at that person until they tell you what’s happening.
“I would also encourage people to use the ‘three-step’ plan – show that you care, ask the person you are worried about what’s going on and encourage your loved one to seek help.”

For more information on suicide levels in Ireland, contact The National Suicide Research Foundation in Cork on (021) 427 7499 or online at www.nsrf.org.

Pips in Belfast can be found by calling (02890) 752 990 or www.pipsproject.com.

Anyone experiencing depression or worried about a loved one can contact the Samaritans in the North on 08457 90 90 90 and in the South on 1850 60 90 90.

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