Belfast Telegraph

The agony of a family broken by suicide ... and why it's an indictment of every one of us

Why are we in Northern Ireland so impotent, so passive, in the face of this crisis in our midst, asks Gail Walker

They are words straight from a Greek tragedy on the lips of a Northern Irish woman: "I don't have any sons now. No sons. My heart is torn away. There's nothing there."

Patricia Ferrin is an ordinary woman, the sort of person you would meet in a cornershop or on the street. And yet she is a woman who has seen such sadness, who has been engulfed by a grief the size of Russia.

She has lost each of her three sons to suicide.

Along with her husband Eddie and daughters Danielle and Seaneen, she is having to endure the unendurable, to look at life square in the face and see that it is not necessarily a lovely thing.

On the contrary, it can be terrible, cruel and uncaring.

Earlier this month their son Stephen Ferrin took his own life, following in the footsteps of his brothers, Kieran, who was 24-years-old when he died three and a half years ago, and Niall (19), who passed away six years ago.

A relative, the boys' cousin, Christopher, also 19, took his own life seven years ago.

Our journalist Claire McNeilly's interview with Patricia made for harrowing reading. Patricia's story of the days leading up to Stephen's death are chilling - in the retelling they take on a ghastly momentum all of their own, speeding it seemed inevitably towards disaster despite the unstinting efforts of his mother to save him.

When something of this magnitude of horror can happen in Northern Ireland, it is time to pause and think. To summon our collective will and have a good hard look at ourselves.

In 2015, we had the highest suicide rate in the whole of the UK, with 19.3 deaths per 100,000 population - significantly higher than elsewhere. Figures from the investigative website The Detail reveal 318 men and women took their own lives in that one year. A total of 245 of those - 77% - were men, while 73 were women. Almost a third - 93 - happened in Belfast.

It may seem melodramatic but we - by commission and omission - made this possible. We just can't point the finger at some vague faraway cause, nod our heads in pity and get on with our lives. We just can't say, it's the aftermath of the Troubles or mutter about deprived areas and lives stunted by a lack of opportunity, or fulminate about the disintegration of communities.

We can't just wonder about the impact of social media and whether in the digital age when people can always reach for a phone and contact someone, they actually feel more isolated than ever before.

We are where we are.

And surely the question is what are we going to do about it? Right now. Today.

In her grief, Mrs Ferrin takes aim at an uncaring system. As Stephen slid into the depression that would mark his final days, there was insufficient help: "I feel as if they (the medical profession) betrayed me. I was told there weren't any beds and it seemed as if nobody could do anything when Stephen was on his knees begging for help."

Her feelings - regardless of whether she is 'right' or not - must fuel her grief even more.

It is simply not enough to point to government cuts or deadlock at Stormont.

Patricia Ferrin says that Belfast desperately needs a dedicated mental health facility.

Indeed, it comes as a shock to think that Belfast - Belfast, for goodness sake - doesn't have a place for those who are at the end of their emotional tether, who are lost or thrashing around for help. Why do we not have such a facility? Why the endless bouncing round from one institution to another? Why the uncertainty as to where to find help (in itself a possible exacerbation and cause of unnecessary stress)?

Being at the top of UK suicide lists would, for most polities, be a profound source of shame. But not here evidently.

We have a massive problem. Our young - and young men in particular - see no hope, no future. Quite the reverse in fact. That is not just a condemnation of our political failure (and it is), it is also a condemnation of our broader culture which seems to just accept these tragedies as the 'norm'.

But there is nothing normal about our passivity. It is something of which we should be deeply ashamed. We need vision, not just easy compassion. We need leadership. Individuals and groups to show the way, arguing for what is needed.

After 40 years of violence, we have reshaped this city in so many ways - vast new commercial and retail centres, a vibrant street culture, tourist attractions to rival anywhere. If we have the will to do this why can't we give some sensible and detailed consideration to those who feel left behind, in some way disconnected, in our boomtown? Maybe we just can't be bothered …

We should remind ourselves that we are dealing with real people, not mere statistics.

The Ferrins, in their recollections of their third lost son, remind us that Stephen was real - not a social problem, an issue, a potential political debate.

Stephen was a son, a brother and a father himself.

Patricia says that he was a caring and generous young man who took her shopping and spoiled her with gifts.

He was handsome, witty and popular, with lots of friends.

He was as fully real as you or I, and, once, someone with hopes and dreams.

According to the latest figures, six people a week here will decide to end their lives, leaving unimaginable devastation in their wake. If this isn't a crisis, what is?

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