Looking at the tragedy of suicide

One day in summer, when I was a child, I was playing hide-and-seek with my friends in a field near my home. In searching for a good hiding-place, I saw a rusting wicket gate in a high boundary wall. I pushed and pushed but the gate would not open, so I looked through the bars. Inside there was a small humpy space, bounded on two sides by a high wall and enclosed on the other two sides by tall elem trees and an overgrown fence.

One day in summer, when I was a child, I was playing hide-and-seek with my friends in a field near my home. In searching for a good hiding-place, I saw a rusting wicket gate in a high boundary wall. I pushed and pushed but the gate would not open, so I looked through the bars. Inside there was a small humpy space, bounded on two sides by a high wall and enclosed on the other two sides by tall elem trees and an overgrown fence.

Though is was a sunny day, this was a dark and gloomy place which, because of the trees and dense undergrowth, was not penetrated by a dappled sun. I felt uneasy, a little scared, and hurried away to find another hiding-place. Somehow the atmosphere of the place must have troubled me, because when I mentioned it at home, my father told me that I had stumbled on old burial grounds.

Many years later, I learned that this isolated and lonely place had been the burial place of victims of suicide during the last decades of the 19th century. In the folk-memory of local people, burials would have taken place there in the darkness of night, by the light of candles. Coffins would have been conveyed by horse and cart, followed by a few, a very few, mourners.

At that time, suicide was a criminal offence, a heinous sin under which victims were denied burial in consecrated grounds. It was a social stigma and a cause of shame to family, relatives and friends, who remained unsupported. Left to themselves.

Looking at the inquest reports in the Grand Jury records of the time, it would appear that the incidence of suicide was then relatively low. The same cannot be said of today, when such tragedies are no longer uncommon.

It has now been de-criminalised in legislation. Victims are buried with all the consoling ceremonies of their churches. Advances in psychiatry and psychology have contributed to a wider understanding of the human mind, a more sensitive assessment of the fragility of the person. There, but for the grace of God...

Yet, despite these developments, there is an upward curve in the graph of its incidence, and a parallel bewilderment as to why it is happening. And to what can be done to prevent it.

For the past several years, the Irish Association of Suicidology has been working, studying, researching, publishing in this area, and recently a sponsored public meeting in Hotel Minella, Clonmel, presenting a broad forum of expertise to discuss: Mental Health Awareness and Suicide Prevention. The meeting was organised by Councillor Joe Leahy, a long-time member of the Association.

In his introduction, he spoke about the tragedy of the suicide of a colleague when he was a member of An Garda Siochana, a tragedy which subsequently led to his involvement in the Association. He was later supported by a member of the panel of speakers, Michael Egan, also a retired garda, who founded a support group (Living Link) for those bereaved by suicide.

The gardai are invariably the first people called in the event of such tragedies, and in which other professionals become immediately involved; doctors, clergy, undertakers, coroners. Like a stone thrown into a pool of water, the circle of those affected by suicide outwards and ever outwards, from family, friends, into neighbourhoods and communities. Nobody who becomes, even peripherally, involved, remains untouched and untroubled.

Mr. Dan Neville, TD, the president and a founder member of the Irish Association of Suicidology told the meeting that, in 2010, the official figure given for death by suicide was 486, but it was agreed that this was a conservative figure, to which 123 deaths, where the actual cause was unidentified, could be added, and yet another unspecified figure for apparent traffic accidents, especially those involving a single person.

It was estimated that about 80% of these deaths involved men, including the suicide of young men - where Ireland held the unenviable position of being fourth in Europe. In these youthful deaths the effects of alcohol on the still developing brain could not be discounted.

And the “slings and arrows” which propelled people into taking their own lives were many - the loss of a job, a home, a family, a broken relationship, the decline of a religious belief, a depression, a problem of drug or alcohol addiction, any of the challenges of life which, for some people, in some circumstances, at some time, become unbearable.

The primary objective of the Irish Association of Suicidology is not only the identification of the causes and the effects of these premature deaths, but the prevention. And the message of the Clonmel meeting was that there is help available; that this help is accessible; and that it is not only professional but encompasses voluntary organisations such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Aware, Console, the Samaritans, MABS, and a number of others, all of which can provide information.

The Association itself has published a most impressive collection of booklets and leaflets, all easily readable, all very practical, covering many aspects of a complex problem: Depression - Signs and Symptoms, Living with a Depressed Person, Living with a Suicidal Person, Helping and Supporting Someone who is Grieving, and many more.

The meeting was also addressed by the professionals. How many people know that the HSE (South) now has a Resource Officer, Mr. Sean McCarthy, who co-ordinates the available services, or that there is a nurse, Ms Helen Ellis, dedicated to the problems involved in self-harming?

The Consultant Psychiatrist (South Tipperary Health Services), Dr. Catriona Crowe, concluded the panel presentation. She spoke about the myths which surround suicide and the important fact that those who talk about taking their own lives, should be taken seriously and not seen as attention-seekers. Depression was, in some cases, a contributory factor, but while 60% to 70% of victims may be mentally ill, and while they may not necessarily want to die, they may not want to live in the pain in which they find themselves.

She emphasised the profoundly sad and disturbing effects which an incident of suicide can leave on a family, parents, siblings, friends, neighbours. In addition to their grief, they are left with a residue of complex feelings, - sorrow, anger, guilt, despair, often blaming themselves. They, too, are victims, and associations, such as Living Links, and others, are there to help restore some peace, into their lives.

It is proposed to arrange for another public meeting under the auspices of the Irish Association of Suicidology, within the next few months. Perhaps, one of the many achievements of the Association is its introduction into public discussion of a very personal and a societally disturbing tragedy, which, up to recent times, could not be talked about.

And the echoes of which I first encountered, a long time ago, in looking through the rusting gates of a dark, sombre and abandoned space.