Belfast Telegraph

Mother who lost teen daughter to suicide extends her mental health campaign to rural areas of Northern Ireland

By Ivan Little

A grieving mother whose teenage daughter took her own life nearly 10 years ago has said she hopes her new initiative to increase suicide awareness could save scores of lives in rural areas of Northern Ireland.

Catherine McBennett was speaking in Dungannon yesterday as the charity she set up in memory of her daughter Niamh unveiled a new mobile unit which will take their mental health message to farmers at marts and agricultural shows and to sportsmen.

The move was welcomed by Health Minister Jim Wells who was at the foundation's headquarters where he said he was concerned at the "rapid increase" in suicide in rural communities, particularly among farmers who were facing unprecedented pressures like plummeting milk prices and worries over who would succeed them in running their farms.

Mr Wells said the World Health Organisation estimates that 800,000 people die by suicide every year around the world which equates to one death every 40 seconds.

Last year 320 people took their own lives in Northern Ireland.

"And that is much, much higher than the number of people who died in road accidents and yet we don't put the same emphasis on the dreadful loss of life through suicide," said Mr Wells, who added that the lives of dozens of family members were also affected by each death.

However, the DUP minister denied that his department weren't doing enough to tackle the increasing numbers of suicide in Northern Ireland.

"We have a protect life strategy which gives funding to a large range of suicide awareness charities but I have arranged a meeting with officials from the Niamh Louise Foundation to discuss the suicide and mental health issues, particularly in rural areas," Mr Wells said.

Mrs McBennett said the new unit - consisting of a fully-equipped van and trailer - includes therapy and counselling facilities to help the foundation deliver its outreach work to people with mental health problems in rural areas.

"If it saves one person's life, that's what is all important, and we also want to de-stigmatise the topic of suicide," she said.

The foundation, which has centres in Cookstown as well as Dungannon, has received funding from Comic Relief and other organisations to help with their work which has also been targeted at sports clubs in mid-Ulster.

Mrs McBennett said she never imagined the charity she and her husband James set up after her 15-year-old daughter's death in November 2005 would achieve so much.

"It's been very emotional. This is part of our legacy to remember Niamh and to turn the tragedy of her death into something positive," she said. "People always say we must be very proud of the work we've done but while we would obviously prefer to have Niamh back, we do take comfort from the number of people we have been able to help and will be able to help in the future."

Mrs McBennett admitted there had been times when it had been hard to keep going with the foundation's work over the past decade.

"The first two or three years were very traumatic," she said.

"It's hard for people who have lost someone to suicide to even get up in the morning and function.

"But having the foundation as a focus gave us the determination to go on."

Mrs McBennett, who has three other children, said she hoped people here would wake up to the ever increasing suicide problem.

"Ten years ago, traffic accidents were the big scourge of our society but as a result of TV advertisements and other campaigns getting the message across, the fatalities have decreased," she said.

"We hope we might have similar results but we need more and more funding to help us spread the word about suicide."

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