Real Life: New research on the causes of suicide and the effects on those left behind
New research, due to be published next year, hopes to finally shed light on the causes of suicide and the effects on those left behind
Monday September 07 2009
This Thursday, September 10, is World Suicide Prevention Day. With 460 people dying by suicide in Ireland in 2007, and our youth suicide rate the fifth highest in Europe, it's a date we should all take note of.
Until now there has been little research to find out just why so many young people kill themselves, and that worried Professor Kevin Malone of UCD and St Vincent's University Hospital. So thanks to funding from, amongst others, 3Ts and the Padraig Harrington Foundation, he decided to talk to the families and the friends of suicide victims.
"We examined 400 suicide cases: 400 young people who had attempted suicide, and another 400 who were depressed, but who had not made a suicide attempt," says Professor Malone. "Over 80pc of those who had committed suicide had told someone of their intention up to two weeks before," he says.
"That is so sad, and is a reflection on our society. It's difficult, too, for the friends who are burdened with that news. They may feel, in the aftermath, that they were enabling the suicide, by standing by their friend and not telling."
Life, too, is difficult for those who made a suicide attempt, and survived.
"They get a second chance at life, but society is angry at them," says Malone. "Yet they had reached a point where they were overwhelmed by a feeling of low self-worth, where the world would be better off without them.
"In the aftermath, they have to deal with anger, and the realisation that they are considered selfish in a society that doesn't care. They have no idea what the aftermath of a successful suicide is like for their family. If they knew they would probably think about the act, but they are in a bubble of despair and they don't see any way out."
Ten suicide clusters were identified in the research, accounting for 40 additional deaths. And this, Malone suggests, is a complex issue.
"It is clear that the grief of suicide death and suicide loss is profound in a young person's society," he says. "They feel alone, afraid, and they identify with suicide as a solution. Young people often tell their parents that suicide is a dreadful thing, and they would never do it, but two weeks later they are dead themselves."
Mental health support for the young is woefully inadequate. There are no public beds for adolescents with mental health problems in Professor Malone's catchment area.
"Not one," he says. "We can 'buy' expensive beds from St John of God's Hospital, but that is not the solution. There are three suicides on our database directly associated with adolescent kids being put in an adult unit. They felt completely out of it."
Anthony knows that feeling well. At 19, he was a patient in St Columba's Psychiatric Hospital in Sligo. It was his third visit and he had been having suicidal thoughts for some time. Whilst there, he went to a nearby derelict building and jumped from a second-floor window.
"I wanted to end the pain," he says. "Killing yourself is not a selfish thing to do; you don't want to hurt your family. It's not brave either. It is neither of those things. My thinking just wasn't right."
Anthony smashed a knee and the bones in his heel. He couldn't walk for five weeks. But when he woke, he was glad that he was alive.
"That was my turning point," he says. "I have been through a lot since then, but I have never once been suicidal. People took me seriously after that. Nobody did before; not even the doctors. I don't think my doctor believed in my story. He didn't believe what I was going through."
It was a long road to recovery. But at 30, Anthony's life has improved beyond recognition. "I still get low days, but I can cope with them now," he says. That is due to counselling and to the support of the organisation Grow, a kind of AA for sufferers of depression.
"I go to Grow every week now," he says. "It gave me the confidence to talk about my illness. I went to Grow to get help for myself, but you help other people as well. You open up about things."
The artist Bernadette Walsh has lost not one but two of her three sons to suicide. Her youngest, Owen, was 33 when he died.
"His breakdown was related to work," says Bernadette. "There'd been trouble, and Owen stood up for his colleagues. He felt, after that, that he was isolated."
He left that job, and started working as a carpenter but he was severely depressed.
"He felt his capacity as a man was diminishing," says Bernadette. "He didn't think he could support his wife, Marie. He was ashamed and we couldn't reason with him."
The family tried to get Owen help. They talked to doctors, and Owen had told his GP that he wanted to kill himself.
"There should have been intervention," says Bernadette. "He should have been admitted to hospital." But he wasn't and on December 6, 1999, Owen was found dead.
Bernadette is convinced that Owen's death contributed to the death of his elder brother, Stephen, years later. Stephen had been a volunteer for four years in Moldova where he'd done sterling work. He'd worked in Ireland as a plumber, and had then volunteered to dig for pumps and to build wells in Sri Lanka. It was soon after he had arrived in Sri Lanka, on December 26, 2006, that he drowned.
"No one wants to believe that her son took his own life, but I know that he did. Stephen couldn't swim. He hadn't been sleeping and he had said goodbye to friends he hadn't seen for years. Work was tough. He was worried about his daughter. Stephanie was pregnant. The baby was born two days after he died."
How has Bernadette coped with this double loss? "I've been helped by the support group Console," she says. "They have been so good to me. I write poems and I paint and paint until I am exhausted. That is how I keep going.
"It is like a glass shattering when you lose someone. Families can split up over the pain. My son David is a hero because he has survived and is a good father. All my sons are heroes. Someone said to me, 'how come you didn't die afterwards?' I said, 'I live for me. Hope is all we have.'"
When Nuala Whelan's husband John killed himself 10 years ago, she had absolutely no idea that he was depressed.
"Everything was in his favour. He was 41. He'd worked as a postman for 22 years and worked up the grades. He'd changed jobs just before he died, and he seemed happy. We didn't have debts and we had eight children aged between 18 and six.
"It was like being hit in the face with a shovel. My first thought, though, was for the kids. They were looking at me to get them through this, so I had to get myself to a place where I could cope. I handed the funeral over to the kids. I felt they needed control over their grief."
It wasn't until Nuala's father died, a few years later, that she realised how difficult John's death had been.
"That's when it hit me. My dad died with his family around. It was a release. John's death was so lonely and cold. It was so hard to visualise his pain.
"I had a dark three years. I've never understood why John died. No matter what I do I will never find the answer. So I might as well live my life since he chose not to live his."
Ten years on, life is rosy. All the children are well and happy. One is married and pregnant, one is a barrister, one a banker with a first-class degree, one is an architect, one a business manager, and another an intensive care nurse. One is studying interior design and the youngest is soon to start college. Nuala has returned to college too.
"Life is to be enjoyed, not endured," says Nuala. "Even after the funeral I said: 'I want a bucket of laughter for every tear you have shed.' You have to find the good in the bad and get on with it."
For help and support
- GROW - www.grow.ie
- CONSOLE - www.console.ie, Helpline 1800 201 8910
Copyright - Sue Leonard 2009