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Public response to suicide tragedies truly heartening

By Gail Walker

Published 05/05/2015

Young suicide victims Ciara Maguire and Declan Curley
Young suicide victims Ciara Maguire and Declan Curley

Bereavement is always one of the big challenges anyone can face in a life. The only consolation is that, because it is also one of the few sure things, everyone will find themselves coping with the loss of loved ones sooner or later.

Also, the very certainty of the experience means that our culture has plenty of support mechanisms to help most of us that meet the challenge, not least the quick and easy support of family and friends.

But the phenomenon of suicide brings with it a whole set of different issues - frequently bafflement, a sense of helplessness, isolation, perhaps even thoughts of having let down the person who has taken his or her own life.

With most deaths there may be accident, disease, long-term illness or just old age to account for the experience - not much consolation, perhaps, but at least an explanation and maybe, too, a sense of the unavoidable.

But the bereavement experience in suicide can be very different both for those undergoing it and for the rest of society, which, like the immediate family, only has questions rather than answers.

Thankfully, awareness-raising campaigns have largely succeeded in removing what used to be known as the social stigma of suicide.

Mostly nowadays those left behind, or the memory of those dead by means of it, are not subject to the old-fashioned and corrosive shame which used to accompany it and which led to secrecy, silence and, consequently, the impossibility of dealing with the bereavement in any useful way.

As the public response to the two tragic deaths at the weekend in Belfast showed, as a society we have travelled a long way in our handling of such losses - no more inclined to hush things up or pretend we are being discreet when really we are confused, wrong-footed and embarrassed.

It was a truly amazing response and, once again, demonstrates the vast compassion of which our communities are routinely capable, rallying around common human issues with active support and commitment.

The several organisations which have developed in recent times specifically to address ignorance and combat stigma deserve our thanks and praise. But they deserve more than that, as we all do.

One of the things of which the vigil reminds us very starkly is that suicide is not a private matter. Just as its impact affects a large number of people, its causes usually have to be found outside the immediate personal circumstances of the deceased. That's maybe where we first look - were they depressed, or hurt, or disappointed, or frightened? Did a particular thing happen that might have besen avoided?

But statistics show that there are clear patterns to our levels of suicide.

The Troubles may also be a factor - aren't they always?

It is also the case that most deaths occur in the highest areas of social deprivation and the least in the lowest.

There is, of course, much research into suicide rates in Northern Ireland, as there is into almost every other area of our lives, much of it university-based and driven by already existing Government strategies.

It will surprise no one that there is, even for suicide, an "acceptable level" - 10.7 per 100,000. But it is clear that while mental health - another issue traditionally fraught with social prejudice - may be a factor in some bereavements, it isn't in all.

And, even where it is a factor, that term alone fails to describe the complexity of the conditions which put everyone's mental well-being under pressure.

In short, we need to tackle the conditions as a whole in which people of all ages and genders find themselves facing the one thing we can be certain faces all people under such intense pressure - a brick wall.

We are heading into a general election on Thursday after a fairly eccentric campaign from all parties.

It would be fitting if we at least remembered Ciara Maguire from New Lodge and Declan Curley from Deerpark, and all those whose lives were untimely ended, as we cast our ballots.

Really, no society can call itself democratic or healthy - or even very useful - if we cannot save the lives of people like them.

Follow me on twitter @GWalker9

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