Archbishop Neary’s address at the launch of the Mayo Suicide Liaison Project
- Venue: Ballyheane, Community Centre
Suicide is one of the most challenging contemporary problems in Ireland. It is a major concern for families and communities throughout the country. It is claiming an average of 500 lives per year in the Republic and 300 in Northern Ireland. A cross border report published last January found that Ireland, North and South, has one of the highest rates of suicide among young people in Europe with young males particularly at risk. The risks however are not confined to males, or to young people. The experience of priests and others working in the community suggests that increasing numbers of older people are seeing suicide as an escape from the isolation or loss of independence that comes from old age.
Essentially, suicide happens when our pain exceeds our ability to cope. This pain can have multiple, often interconnected sources, such as financial problems, unemployment, relationship breakdown, bullying, abuse, addictions and mental health problems.
The present economic crisis has meant that these types of pressures are experienced by a wider range of people, and support can be more difficult to come by. Every family in the country will experience some additional pressures in the form of unemployment or the threat of unemployment, reduced income, debt, loss of loved ones through migration, depression, anxiety or fears for the future. With such widespread suffering and distress, the pain of the vulnerable individual can go un-noticed.
A key to reducing the numbers of people who die through suicide is to increase our capacity as individuals and a community to identify those at risk and to assist them in finding appropriate help.
While suicidal feelings may have been present for some time, it has been stated that the overwhelming urge to end one’s life generally does not last for very long. Those who have developed effective suicide prevention strategies have found that if somebody can “buy time” for the person at risk in this critical period it can pass over and the person can be helped to remain safe. The Samaritans give a wonderful service at this point through their “hotline” telephones. We should not be afraid of asking someone we think is at risk if they are having suicidal thoughts and encourage them to seek appropriate help.
Research has shown that those with suicidal thoughts are often feeling disconnected and alienated. They feel that they are a burden to loved ones and that everyone else would be better off without them (Thomas Joiner, Myths about Suicide, 2011). The real tragedy here – as any priest who has supported a family bereaved by suicide will testify – is that this is never the case. The devastation left behind can be overwhelming, as the element of apparent “choice” involved in a death by suicide can leave loved ones struggling with intense, often unspoken feelings of confusion, abandonment, guilt and even anger at the person who has died. The question ‘why’ can take on enormous significance, with little prospect of an answer.
Today there is a greater understanding and sympathy on the part of all of us in the wake of this harrowing experience. We need to ensure that strong support networks are in place for individuals, families and communities where there are concerns about suicide or where suicide has taken place. A key factor is encouraging open, direct and honest conversation about suicide and its devastating effects. We should not shy away from talking openly, maturely and constructively about how as individuals and a community we can create safer environments in which those who are feeling suicidal can make their feelings known and find help.
We also need to face up to those values of modern society that may be contributing to an increase in feelings of inner isolation, worthlessness and despair. A society which places a premium on image, instant success and what we have rather than who we are needs to be challenged. The Christian vision of the human person puts a premium on the innate dignity and value of every person, irrespective of our appearance, our physical or mental capacity or what we own. A Christian vision of society puts a premium on friendship, community, care and compassion for one another and especially those who are in need. Are we giving enough attention to the importance of these life-affirming and community building Christian values? What of the Christian virtue of hope and of our capacity to find strength in the redemptive suffering of our Lord on the Cross and of perseverance through all kinds of set-backs and suffering? Have we lost something of this vital spiritual and human resource that helps us to see the fuller picture and interpret pain, suffering and disappointment in a positive manner?
In virtually every circumstance a person who has died of suicide was loved and an important figure in a family and in a circle of friends. No person who died of suicide should be remembered as a failure, as a coward, or as selfish. Suicide should not be described in those terms. Suicide is an act of complete desperation. Many people who die by suicide have been engaged in trojan struggles to continue living and, finally, running out of energy, they ran out of hope. They were completely engulfed in despair and so brought their lives to an end. It was not because they wanted to or because they didn’t love their dear ones, or because they were cowards or weak. They were people who had struggled and succumbed to an illness. The people who have passed away often did a great deal to enrich the people around them.
The fact of the matter is that this person’s final act should not define their life. Their life is much more descriptive than their final act of ending their lives. For those left behind there can be no guilt or blame.
It is said that a minimum of fifty people suffer from loss, grief, guilt, blame or shame as a result of a single suicide. This makes us appreciate the wisdom of the ancient Irish proverb “ar scáth a cheile a mhaireann na daoine”. Because we live in the shadow of one another we can make a difference by facing up to the ever increasing rate of suicides in Ireland. This task should not be left to the professionals only – if we face up to the problem and become acutely aware of it we may be able to find appropriate responses to it.
As a public, we should be better informed about early warning clues or signals so that those at risk might be encouraged to get help. An essential factor in providing assistance for teenagers or young adults at risk of suicide is a good, trusting relationship with helpful peers and caring people, who are not necessarily experts, but who need to be able and willing to listen and to help. It is important to avoid sensationalising the problem by creating a scare atmosphere. However, it is equally important not to normalise suicide by believing that it is a response to the common everyday “stressors” which all of us experience. In this context I share the concerns of many who fear that the inclusion of a ‘suicide clause’ in the proposed Abortion legislation could have the effect of normalising it. In potentially normalising suicide in the Bill, the State could be seen as legitimising it and thereby sending mixed signals to young people who are most at risk. By justifying the death of another person in response to suicidal feelings, the Bill also promotes destructive and life-destroying responses to suicidal symptoms rather than the caring, compassionate and life-affirming responses that are required and are the hallmark of a caring society.
Working together I believe we can help one another, with our different resources, to offer safe and life-affirming spaces where those who are experiencing suicidal feelings can tell us openly how they feel and receive appropriate help. We can help to create a community that is life-affirming and hope giving. We can help each other to choose life in every decision we make.
Preventing suicide is a priority concern for the Catholic Church, in keeping with our consistent ethic of the protection of life. While the Church teaches that human life is a gift from God and is not ours to dispose of, it also recognises that suicide is often a response to a situation of deep despair and distress, for which the individual concerned cannot be considered fully responsible. Our response is one of compassion, not condemnation.
In conclusion I would like to thank:
- The National Office for Suicide Prevention
- The steering group for the project
- The Director, Cathal Kearney, The Board of Directors of the Family Centre and the staff and volunteers
- All the organisations, both statutory and non-statutory
- And most importantly the members of the Family Advisory group
- And finally Máire Nidh Dhomhnaill, project coordinator who undertook the bulk of the work. Máire is an accredited counsellor who has worked in the Family Centre as part of the Counselling team here for over 10 years.
Notes to Editors
- Archbishop Michael Neary is the Archbishop of Tuam
For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678