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Out of darkness: We speak to people who reached out in times of need

As we mark World Suicide Prevention Day, three brave local people reveal how they’re winning the battle against despair

By Stephanie Bell

In a moving act tonight at 8pm, people in Northern Ireland and around the globe will place a simple candle in a window to mark World Suicide Prevention Day. Every 40 seconds, someone, somewhere in the world takes their own life – adding to a global tally of more than 800,000 suicides a year.

In fact, suicide now kills more people each year than conflicts and natural catastrophes put together – accounting for more than half of the world's 1.5 million sudden deaths.

These statistics form part of a new report by the United Nations which took 10 years to complete and involved 172 countries.

Northern Ireland people know only too well the trauma of loss from suicide. Last year, 303 people took their own lives in the province.

In recent years, there has been a significant increase in suicide rates in Northern Ireland – especially among men.

A total of 3,288 suicides were registered from the beginning of 1998 to the end of 2012. Deaths from suicide were almost double the number of people (1,825) who died in road traffic collisions during the same 15-year period. And suicide doesn't just affect young people – one in eight here is in the over-60 age-group. Everyone is vulnerable to emotional and mental distress, which at least one in four of us will experience at some time in our lives.

Here, three local people who have been at rock-bottom and suffered despair bravely share their stories about how they beat depression and are once again living life to the full.

'Talking to others helped me to feel better'

Sam Turtle (66), a retired chef from the Shankill area of Belfast, is a widower, with 10 children, 39 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Sam has rebuilt his life after suffering from depression with the help of the charity The Lighthouse in Belfast. He says:

My wife, Jean, who passed away four years ago, was an alcoholic who left me in 2000. I had to leave work to bring up our five youngest children, who were aged from seven upwards.

I was okay until all the children had left home and I was on my own. It was about five years ago and I just wasn't coping the same anymore.

I didn't socialise, had no confidence and couldn't talk to people.

We had come through a lot during the Troubles.

I lost a brother-in-law, my father-in- law and my sister-in-law. My 12-year- old daughter, Maxine, was walking down the street when gunmen opened fire on the Army and she got shot in the leg.

My GP put the way I was feeling down to my family history and referred me for counselling. I saw a number of community psychiatric nurses over the years.

One day, I was sitting on the Queen's Bridge, ready to throw myself into the water, when a fella and girl I didn't know found me and brought me home.

To this day, I have no memory of how I got to the bridge. My only memory is of crying at my front door and feeling like I didn't want to live. I wanted my heart to stop beating. It scares me now to think about it.

It was shortly after that that I went to the charity The Lighthouse. That has been a big influence in my life and brought me around. I got to meet people with the same problems. Just being able to talk and realise you are not on your own makes all the difference.

I joined a photography class with 11 other men who had all been through the same thing. The idea of the class was to use a throwaway camera. We would take raw images of things to show how we were feeling and write a story, or a poem, about it.

We've had an exhibition of photographs at Stormont, the Mac, Queen's University and the City Hall. At the Mac, I stood up and talked about my photographs and that's something I could never have done before.

My son's girlfriend took her own life a year ago, aged 31, and my daughter's friend took her own life around the same time. She was 29.

It made me feel I should have been trying to talk to people, as you don't realise just how many people are struggling and that has given me the confidence to talk about my experience.

If by sharing what I have been through I can give hope to one suicidal person, then that will be worthwhile.

Talking is what is important and to anyone who is feeling down, or suicidal, I would urge them to share how they are feeling with someone – a family member, a friend, or their GP. Just talking makes all the difference.

It helps you to realise you are not alone and that the feelings of despair will pass. I kept my feelings to myself for so long and, as soon I talked to others, I started to feel better.

My life has completely changed and it's down to the help I got through The Lighthouse and meeting others on the photography course who understood how I was feeling.

I had loads and loads of grandchildren and yet I felt so alone. I didn't want to see anyone. Now I enjoy my family, especially all the children.

I still do get moments when I feel low, but I just think positive thoughts and I soon get over it."

'I struggled to see how this dark cloud would ever lift after I lost my brother'

Sami Cullen (25), who is from Carrickfergus, has a daughter, Phoebe (3), and works with adults who have learning difficulties. Sami suffered depression after the loss of her 16-year-old brother, Jay, to suicide seven years ago. She is now a board member of The Lighthouse charity. She says:

Jay's death was a complete shock to all of us; there was nothing to indicate that he was feeling so bad that he wanted to take his own life. When you experience the suicide of someone you love, it pulls the rug from beneath your feet.

I was 18 and all of my friends were going off to university and I was feeling like my world had just crashed.

I had applied for a year's internship with ChildLine, which I was due to start two days after my brother died.

I went ahead and completed it, but during that year depression slowly crept in.

Before my brother passed away, the only experience I had of loss was a great-grandmother when I was very young, so I found it hard to cope and understand grief.

We all dealt with it differently and I think everyone was just trying to find out how to grieve. Suicide is extremely overwhelming and I really struggled to figure out who I was.

I felt as if I was living in a bubble and life was going on around me at a very fast pace.

I did speak to my doctor and I went to The Lighthouse for support, as I didn't want to give in to the feelings of despair. The Lighthouse provided me with counselling and art therapy, and helped me to accept that I wasn't on my own.

That made all the difference. Just to realise I wasn't going crazy and that other people were feeling the same and knew what it was like meant more than anything to me.

I think because of Jay I knew if I didn't get help, things could get even worse. I had isolated myself. I struggled to see how this dark cloud was ever going to lift. I felt consumed in darkness.

I could understand why people feel suicidal.

I would really encourage people to talk, speak to someone. And, if you feel they are not listening, speak to someone else. For me, finding out that God loved me and He had a plan for my life when I felt so lost was a turning point.

I've been going to the Life Church in Belfast for over a year now and found it really helpful. I have learnt that God has never left me and has been with me throughout my struggles.

I have volunteered as a member of The Lighthouse board of directors and I try to use my story to let people know there is hope and that they are not alone.

I'm well now. I'm working and I have my wee daughter, Phoebe, and I hope it shows that there is life after depression.

I give talks when I can and run workshops for young people, trying to raise awareness and break down the stigma.

It is like your whole world shatters when you lose a loved one to suicide and it's extremely difficult. You do feel like you are on your own; that no one else has ever experienced it, or knows what it is like.

Meeting other families who have been there before helps you to stand up again when you have fallen down.

Jay's anniversary was last Friday and my daughter knows about her uncle Jay and can point him out in photographs.

And I bring her to the grave with me. She is helping me to make new memories."

'We celebrate the years we had with Danny'

Gerard McCartan (48), from north Belfast, lost his son Danny (18) to suicide on April 11, 2005. Gerard, who is a volunteer with the PIPs suicide prevention charity, is married to Carole (48) and they have a daughter Caroline (30) and a four-year-old grandson, Tiernan. He says:

At the time it happened to Danny, we had a lot of answers we wanted from the health service and my grieving was put on hold as we campaigned to get those answers. That kept me focused.

The health minister at the time, Shaun Woodward, launched an inquiry and, as a result, there was a report with recommendations on how young people with mental health problems should be treated in the health service. We also got a public apology.

It was only when that was all over that it hit me that Danny was gone and he wouldn't be coming back.

I was in a bad way and I remember a time when I just wanted to get a bottle of vodka and drink it and end how I was feeling. I don't drink and, thankfully, I didn't drink it.

There was just something there telling me not to and that I needed to get help. If I hadn't got help and instead had turned to drink, I think it would have been a whole different scenario. I went to PIPs and the Family Trauma Centre. It was very hard to open up and talk as a man and a father, being proud, but I am glad I did it as it probably saved my life. It is so important to talk to somebody.

If you can't talk to family, then find someone else. There is help out there. Don't be afraid to tell them the truth about how you are feeling.

It got me to look at things differently and to get round all the thoughts of suicide I had.

What stopped me, too, was my wife and daughter. I now feel very lucky because I did get help – I wouldn't have been here to see my grandson, or his first day at school on Monday.

We will never forget Danny, but we don't dwell on what happened. We have now chosen to celebrate the 18 years we did have with him."

A light at the end of the tunnel ...

World Suicide Prevention Day today is an opportunity for everyone to focus attention on the number of people who end their lives by suicide.

A number of events are being held in Northern Ireland this week to promote understanding about suicide and to highlight prevention activities.

The Lighthouse, a north Belfast-based charity supporting both people who have been bereaved by suicide and those who are in crisis, is hosting a series of events to mark World Suicide Prevention Day.

Internationally-renowned motivational speaker Billy Dixon spoke to a large group of people in Belfast on positive mental health and resilience yesterday.

Suicide is among the three leading causes of death among those aged 15 to 44-years-old in some countries, and the second leading cause of death in the 10 to 24-years-old age group. Mental disorders, particularly depression and addiction, are major risk factors for suicide.

Of the 303 deaths by suicide in Northern Ireland in 2013, 229 were men and 74 women.

From January 2012 until January 2013, The Lighthouse provided a total of 679 crisis interventions to individuals who presented in distress and despair.

The Lighthouse is based at 187 Duncairn Gardens, Belfast, tel: 028 9075 5070, or alternatively visit the website www.light housecharity.com/contact/.

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