The battle against suicide and the stigma associated with mental health issues were high on the agenda this week in Clonmel as almost 200 people - both young and old - united in force to attend a suicide information evening in Clonmel.
This was the third in a series of such meetings aimed at creating awareness of suicide, lifting the stigma and providing information on the support mechanisms available to people.
Organised by local man Joe Leahy, in conjunction with the Irish Association of Suicidology (IAS) and supported for the first time by the South Tipperary GAA Board, the theme of the meeting focused on taking positive action to tackle the tragedy of suicide in our community. And it was clear from the reaction of the crowd that Clonmel is prepared to lead the way in this.
This latest meeting featured guest speakers: Dr John Connolly, consultant psychiatrist and co-founder of the IAS; Gerry Flynn, former Clonmel Loreto teacher and current president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors; South Tipperary district coroner Paul Morris and; Waterford Comhairle na nÓg members April Duff and Jamie Moore. The meeting was opened by Mayor of Clonmel Billy Shoer. Attendees, which included a large proportion of young people, hailed the meeting a success and praised Mr Leahy, a local Fine Gael councillor, for taking the initiative to get people talking about suicide, its signs, symptoms and prevention.
But much more than just a talking shop, these meetings are empowering the local community to stand up to the scourge of suicide, which is claiming at least 600 people each year in this country according to the IAS. In the past four years, the number of deaths by suicide that have come before the South Tipperary district coroner’s court has doubled from nine to 18.
Mr Leahy announced his intention to work towards opening a branch of Pieta House, a suicide and self-harm crisis centre, in Clonmel and received strong support from the floor and speakers for this.
Pieta House provides one-to-one, professional couselling which is free of charge to people in acute stages of suicidal distress. Mr Leahy said he has been communicating with Pieta House representatives over the past number of months and was heartened this week by the announcement that a Pieta House has just opened in Roscrea. “It is something where people can just go to, there is no referral, no fee, no waiting. It is a fantastic system if we could operate it in the town, it is a great service for the community and is something that I would like to see coming out of these events if that is possible.” And he urged people to get in touch with him to make this a reality.
While taking positive action was the theme of the event, president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, Mr Flynn, highlighted how the Government’s recent negative actions could have serious consequences for young people with personal or mental health issues in schools. Mr Flynn said each week he receives calls from fellow guidance councillors working in schools and colleges of further education, alerting him to issues of self harm, suicide ideation and tragically, suicide.
But he condemned the Government’s decision to reduce guidance and counselling services in schools, making it more difficult for students to avail of one-to-one support from such counsellors who are trained to help vulnerable young peolple.
“Recently the Government published guidelines on anti-bullying and mental health in post-primary schools. Now it is very laudable that the Government would do that but unfortunately with the cutbacks that have taken place over the last number of years, it is increasingly more difficult for schools to deal with the issues and problems that are now presenting.
“So while it is laudable, on the one hand the Government are taking away some of the frontline essential services that should be there to help and support young people at critical times in their lives. And we need to speak out about that and we need to condemn the Government where they abandon their responsibility to cope with and tackle and help the young people,” he said, receiving applause from the audience.
According to Mr Flynn the reduction of guidance and counselling services from schools equates to at least a 50% drop in one-to-one counselling in schools.
“So a lot of the issues that would have been addressed before they became serious problems were dealt with sensibly and quietly by the guidance counsellor in the school. Now they are left unattended and are presenting at a later stage in a much nore serious form and demand much more supports from external agencies.”
Suicide, its causes, signs and symptoms, the importance of looking after our mental health and accepting that life is not always easy, formed key parts of the other speakers’ speeches. Waterford County’s Comhairle na nÓg presented their excellent ‘Mind Matters’ documentary which promotes positive mental health among young people. It features a number of well-known Irish figures who speak about their experiences of mental health, including rock band Aslan, rugby analyst Brent Pope and international race-walker Kate Veale (available on YouTube).
District coroner Paul Morris spoke eloquently and powerfully about the need to improve our awareness and understanding of suicide, while being careful not to normalise it, as well as the need to equip young people with skills to deal with life’s difficulties.
Dr Connolly said the disparity between money spent on something like road safety, compared to suicide prevention, was appalling, with the National Office of Suicide Prevention receiving €3.5m in the same year that road safety was receiving €45m per year. “Are suicide deaths less important than road safety?” he asked.
Contact Joe Leahy on 086 2606988 to discuss bringing Pieta House to Clonmel. A Darkness into Light walk, in association with Aware, and in memory of Gary Power will take place on April 28 at 4am from the Clonmel Park Hotel.
Contact Samaritans on 1850 60 90 90; Aware 1890 303 302 or Console 1800 201 890.