The CSO Vital Statistics report for 2012, published earlier this week, suggested that the number of suicides registered in Ireland rose to 525 in 2012, representing a 7% increase. However President of the Irish Association of Suicidology (IAS) Dan Neville TD said the true figure for suicides would be closer to 600 when “undetermined” deaths were taken into account – closer to 22%.
These figures are frightening enough when taken alone – all the more so when you consider the far-reaching effects of suicide. A single suicide can shatter an entire community. Personally, I feel that many deaths due to drug and alcohol poisoning that may have been a result of self-medicating for depression, could also be considered suicide.
84% (439 cases) of all recorded suicidal deaths were male, and the majority of those who took their own lives – male and female – were aged 15-44. According to the Central Statistics Office, the suicide rate in Offaly last year was 23.5 per 100,000 population, compared with 5.1 in the Fingal area and 7.3 in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. Dublin city recorded a rate of 9.1.This suggests that suicide is a bigger problem in rural areas and more disadvantaged areas.
It is often difficult to fathom why a person commits suicide. Partly this is due to the fact that clinical depression is not a logical state to be in and its difficult for a non-depressed person to use their logic to understand a mind that was not logical or rational. Stories are constructed by family and friends to make sense of what happened but it is likely that the deceased did not communicate everything to them. A study carried out by University College Dublin and Teagasc investigated the increased suicide risk in rural communities, intelligently hypothesising that the best way to understand suicide was to talk to people who had made serious attempts on their own lives and survived. 26 men, aged between 19 to 75 years of age, were interviewed following admission to a hospital or psychiatric unit, for the study.
The resulting report, Pain and Distress in Rural Ireland by Dr Anne Cleary, Maria Feeney and Dr Áine Macken-Walsh points to a number of factors that are associated with increased risk of suicide in rural Ireland. These include low educational attainment, limited job opportunities, marginal farming and dependency on social welfare payments. UCD sociologist Dr Anne Cleary said that rural factors, such as the stigma attached to mental illness, men’s attitudes to health, and a narrow range of treatment options greatly reduced the possibility of solving the mental health problems of this group.
It’s not surprising that suicides are more common amongst men, and in rural areas. It is well established that isolation and loneliness can drive people to take their own lives, and I don’t think that many city and townspeople are fully aware of how isolated large parts of rural Ireland still are. Even if there is enough of a population to form a community, farming in particular – the largest industry where I grew up by far – is lonely work. Even when I was in primary school in the 1990’s, it was not uncommon for children to miss days at school as they were needed to help on the farm. Many farmers will assume that their children will inherit the family farm, which can lead to feeling trapped, and especially if they missed a lot of school due to pressure to help on the farm, their options, economically and socially, will be limited indeed.
Dr Cleary also said that “Self-medication with alcohol and the alcohol culture just has to be addressed.” In a culture where alcohol excess is as normalised as ours, it is far more acceptable for a young man to drink too much than it is for him to talk about how he feels or seek help for depression and risk ridicule by his peers. Alcohol addiction is a serious problem, but even if a person is not dependent, self-medication with alcohol can only lead to harm. Alcohol gives us a temporary high and lightens our mood, but it is in fact a depressive drug. Depression saps our energy and motivation, which is actually an advantage when we are ill – it conserves our strength so that we can recover. When our bodies are unwell, our brain sends itself into a temporary sickness depression (it was actually sickness depression for TB that led to the discovery of anti-depressant drugs). When we are unhappy, we can keep busy and keep our minds off something during the day, but getting to sleep is difficult. Alcohol is readily available, socially stigma-free, and helps us sleep – but when we are hungover the next morning sickness depression will kick in to compound an already fragile mental state.
The economic situation must surely also play a factor. As Mr Neville said “The recession has had a huge impact on people’s wellbeing. Those who lose their jobs, experience a drastic reduction in their income or are in danger of losing their home experience a lot of anxiety, despair and depression. Relationship difficulties and marriage breakdown can follow on from that.” The Irish Association of Suicidology said international research shows that for every 1% increase in unemployment there is a 0.78% increase in the rate of suicide.
There is a small sector of society that lives up to the “Why would I get a job when I can just sponge off the State?” stereotype, but jobs are painfully rare, and the majority of people who are unemployed would take any chance not to be. Most of my friends from university are unemployed, and having worked very hard for four years to educate yourself to as high a level as you can and to then be thought of as just another lazy drain on the state cannot be good for your mental health.
That the majority of suicides were young people; potentially related as much to how the unemployed are perceived as to lack of job opportunity. The economic situation is dire, but Ireland’s older generation know that we survived dire economic situations before. This is the first such crisis that my generation have to live through.
But there are things that need to be tackled, that the political will does not exist to tackle. One is social inequality. Our politicians have failed to learn from the generations of politicians before them that if ignored, a problem will not go away. Ireland is disgustingly unequal – but we will continue to skirt around this as we have always done.
The way that our politicians are so quick to trot out the lie that every single Irish person partied too hard and spent too much in the good years, and that the austerity cuts – which will hurt the poor the most – are the fault of the poor, is utterly disgusting. I don’t think anyone is naïve enough to believe that the country was brought to its knees by anything other than political failure and white-collar crime, but when you are on the verge of losing everything you own and a fat-cat politician comes on air to remind you that everything is your fault, the feeling of powerlessness must be overwhelming.
Ireland is broken. But one thing that can be done for mental health is to introduce more supports for young people. The CSO report clearly shows that this is the highest risk group for suicide – but if we grow up knowing that it is okay to seek help when we need it, depression is far less likely to be as life-limiting – even life-ending – in adulthood.
ReachOut.com is an online support for young people wanting to learn more about mental health. If you’re concerned about yourself or someone close to you, or simply want to get some more information, please visit reachout.com