We are in danger of normalising suicide in Irish society
Inrecent years, we have welcomed a lot of new debate, research and impetus around the topic of suicide here in Ireland and I am frequently asked, what needs to change, how can we reduce high levels of suicide in Ireland, and what would make a difference? Given the complex and multi-faceted nature of suicide, a simple answer never suffices. Still, some new themes and trends are of great concern and the emergence of the ‘normalisation of suicide’ is worthy of examination. In short, I believe that Irish society is in danger of normalising suicide as one of a number of possible reactions to extreme stress because we are not conditioning our children to accept disappointments in their lives.
When I founded Console, one of our stated aims was to destigmatise attitudes to people who had died through suicide and also the bereaved families, and we achieve great success through working both with families and people in crisis. However, it is becoming more apparent to us that young people, in particular, are increasingly coming to accept suicide as an option. In trying to understand the pressures that drive some people to take their own lives – and in showing sympathy towards the victims – a trend towards unintentionally legitimising the act may be developing.
Conversations and reporting on suicide in traditional and social media platforms, need to acknowledge that in celebrating the lives of those who have died – without offering any sensitive criticism of the act itself – there is a real danger that some impressionable people could confuse this with championing the act of suicide itself. A child cannot grow up to believe that suicide is an understandable or appropriate response to any form of upsetting life event.
The suicide of those who have not even begun to live, needs to leave society as a whole sick with outrage at an unnecessary, cruel loss. Contrary to popular belief, suicide is not always the result of mental illness – sometimes it is a rash reaction to a temporary upset. Furthermore, the phrase of suicide being a ‘permanent solution to a temporary problem’ is commonly used in and around tragic events.
It might strike someone who is not suicidal as a clever statement, but the audience this statement is aimed at is, of course, people who are suicidal.
The common purpose of suicide is to seek a solution to, or escape from, intolerable emotion, unbearable pain or unacceptable anguish. So emphasising to a suicidal person that suicide is a permanent solution is somewhat dangerous. Also, from the point of view of the person in crisis, the ‘temporary’ pain from which suicide would provide escape, is most certainly not temporary.
So how can we converse safely with young people about suicide, mental health, mood and feelings? The life-skill that we must impart to our children is not to expect that all will go right in their lives, to understand that they will suffer many disappointments and that some will upset them greatly. The high expectations of the Celtic Tiger years have given way to a generation who believe that unless they excel, they will not reach the heights that their parents or siblings did, or the expectations they believe are put on them.
In Console, all too often, we are dealing with young people who cannot cope with the fact that they will not get what they want, young people who find it hard to accept that people may treat them badly. Our constant message is that sometimes no matter how hard people try, they may not get what they hope for.
However, life is a long and varied road, and we must ensure that our children do not get stuck in potholes that they cannot find their way out of. Our children and young adults need to know that there are many paths to happiness, not just the one that society seems to map out.
They also need to know that it is all right not to succeed in education, in friendship or in love. These are mere weigh points on the road. Most importantly, our young people need to know that there is both hope and help out there.
Within Console’s portfolio of services, we operates a suicide ‘postvention’ counselling service, supporting people who have experienced suicide in their close circles and minimising the risk that suicide contagion or clusters may occur.
Through this work, we know that people whose loved ones have taken their own lives sometimes feel that they should have done more. They are left with many questions, the most poignant generally being: “Was our love not enough?” The answer is, always, of course it was.
However, if a young person does not see talking about their problems as an option in our society, then the door is always going to remain ajar to the worst of options. Young people need to know from adults that no matter what they have done, no matter how bad the situation, that you are there to listen, to help and to advise.
As a society, as media organisations, as educators and as parents, we need to keep the lines of communication open and increase the emphasis to young people that suicide is innately wrong and should never be the correct solution to their problems. We need to emphasise the point that there are times in your young life when you may will feel like no-one understands, that no-one can help, and that there is no hope.
At this point, young people need to realise that this will pass, it is an illusion, nothing more. No matter what life throws at us, there are always supports, there is always hope, love and a future for us all.
There is a place for us all in society, no matter what our background, appearance, sexuality or beliefs. Getting these messages across may be our greatest intergenerational challenge yet.
Paul Kelly is the founder and CEO of Console
National suicide prevention and bereavement charity Console offers free counselling services and 24-hour helpline support to people in crisis and those bereaved by suicide.
The charity operates full-time centres in Dublin, Cork, Wexford, Limerick, Galway, Tralee, Mayo and Kildare.
Counselling is available for any individual, couples, families or children who have been affected by suicide.
Console recently opened a suicide bereavement and prevention service in London, after being invited over by the British authorities.
In 2012, Console presented a set of national standards, benchmarking suicide bereavement work in Ireland. Produced in collaboration with the HSE National Office for Suicide Prevention, this set of quality standards now defines and measures safe and appropriate care across this field.
Console can be reached at any time on freephone 1800 201 890 and many resources and information can be found at www.console.ie
We need a whole change of mindset
Christy Kenneally, broadcaster and author of Say Yes to Life, says Irish society must overcome the negative mindset created by the economic crisis. “Some people would say suicide is an epidemic in Ireland. As to why that is so, I think we are still in a period of crisis. The normal world collapsed around us and the future looks uncertain. Many people who would have set their stall on fixed elements feel they no longer have those. We need a whole change of mindset. We saw work as our worth and we must now realise that your worth is who you are in yourself. It is a gift from God and we need to begin to establish basic values and a new normal.”