Belfast Telegraph

Search for Dean McIlwaine brought us all together, now we are left mourning this dreadful loss

The sad death of the Newtownabbey man confronts us with some profound questions, writes Gail Walker

The sense of grief, sadness and despair was palpable. In shops and offices, people gathered to express their sorrow. On social media the news was disseminated quickly - and with dismay. On Saturday the discovery of a body at Cave Hill Country Park made clear there would be no happy ending to the story of Newtownabbey man Dean McIlwaine's disappearance. And we had so wanted one.

We had been moved by the distress and dignity of Dean's parents, Rodney and Karen, the determination of the extended family, the concern and energy of friends as they reacted to the news of the 22-year-old's disappearance on July 13.

As the days passed many shared appeals about Dean on social media, a poignant cry for any nugget of information rippling out across Northern Ireland and beyond.

Posters went up. Crowds gathered at City Hall to pick up leaflets to distribute around the city. Taxi firms offered free transport to the campaign. Stores donated food to those looking for Dean. People kept their eyes peeled. Hundreds volunteered on various searches. Some came from as far away as Cookstown. SDLP councillor Paul McCusker helped co-ordinate the search.

For 10 days many were united in concern for the young man, hoping against hope that the inexplicable would somehow be explained with no harm done - that Dean had taken a few days out to get over his grandfather's death or prepare himself for the opening of his new business. That he would be returned "safe and well" to his loved ones, as those PSNI appeals for missing people so often put it.

Now we are struggling to comprehend the nature of the tragedy. While we are awaiting the official post-mortem results, it would appear that the last few hours and minutes of Dean's life remain a mystery.

But, his heartbroken mother, reacting to the news of the discovery of her son's body, surmised that he may have been under some stress. "Dean had everything to live for - a new home, a new business and a girlfriend who loved him. But maybe he had been coming under pressure from all the changes that were happening in his life."

It is a sad thought - especially when contrasted with those photographs of Dean that swept across the media and out into cyberspace. To all appearances here was a happy young man, open-faced, his life brimming with possibilities, on the cusp of everything, really. We see young men like Dean every day - the carefully trimmed stubble, the well-groomed hair, the earring, the fashionable clothes, the sense of self, a touch of brio.

Is it any surprise that we felt like we knew him? An ambitious young man about to open his own barber's shop and set up home with his girlfriend, Demi-jo. "He was the most talented wee barber ever," said his mum. "A lot of the Press people... told us that Dean had cut their hair. One of the police inspectors also said that he had done his hair as well. He was very popular with everyone."

The story of Dean McIlwaine confronts us with profound and - frankly - awful questions: who really knows the secrets of a person's heart? How can you tell what someone is feeling deep down inside? True, he was mourning his grandfather who had died on the Twelfth. But that same day he'd enjoyed watching the bands and held a barbecue at his home. Two weeks before that he'd relished the role of best man at his brother's wedding in Cyprus. He seemed resilient and very much embracing the world.

Northern Ireland - probably more than many places - can be a rather conservative place where we prefer to bottle things up, to not want to impose, to be pathologically wary of expressing vulnerability. We tend to remain tight-lipped, passing over our darker emotions with a quip, a bit of banter or a light-hearted rant. In some ways it's admirable. Over the years - including some very tumultuous ones - we collectively learnt to keep our heads down and say nothing about anything.

And that conservatism is matched by us, the wider community. We tend to take people at face value, to squirm at the idea of intimacy, to respect a person's privacy, to be wary of making the first move.

But we will have to change. Suicide and depression are huge problems here. Figures from the NI Statistics and Research Agency and Registrar General's quarterly reports show that, in 2015, 318 people took their own lives here. That's six people per week. Or almost one a day. Of those 318, 77% were males and well over a third - 132 - were aged between 15 and 34. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2014 there were 16.5 suicides per 100,000 in Northern Ireland, compared with 14.5 for Scotland, 10.3 for England and 9.2 for Wales.

Many of our friends and neighbours have been or are under treatment for depression. We are near the top of world leagues in the use of antidepressants with over 3.5 million GP prescriptions written over a six-month period in 2013.

Even as lay people and, by definition, non-experts we should grasp one fundamental point - there is a lot of unhappiness around us but we don't seem able to see it. The causes are varied and multi-faceted but perhaps just a recognition that it is there would be a giant first step to enabling people to feel they can talk about it.

The problem seems to be most acute, almost paradoxically, for young men - not the stressed, burnt-out businessman or middle-aged woman at the end of her tether. Yet when you think about it, it is precisely this more youthful group which is under the most cultural and psychological pressure to conform to stereotype: be a man, hang tough, be cool, be the guy you want to be. Or, on another more simplistic level, 'Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy'. As if life were that easy.

It would be impertinent and foolish of me to claim to have 'answers' to very complex questions but we have to begin somehow to think of ways to allow people to talk more openly - and to listen better.

Because, as the case of Dean McIlwaine shows all too clearly, we do care...very much. During the time that Dean was missing we were united in our concern and compassion. Be honest - we thought of how we would feel if someone we loved just went missing without trace. The fear, the panic, the distress. We tried to put ourselves in Dean's place. We tried to understand, to fathom what may have happened to him. His story struck us at an elemental level.

Not for the first time we weren't just two communities at each other's throats. No, we were one - united by simple humanity and empathy. Deadlock at Stormont? By comparison, that just seems like posturing. The search for Dean was the very essence of people's lives and our response to it was uncertain, inadequate perhaps, but real and movingly human.

In the days ahead we should remember that feeling.

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