The astonishing number of people in despair or even considering taking their own lives is revealed by the levels of call to Lifeline, a regional 24-hour-a-day telephone helpline set up earlier this year.
Currently around 200 people a day are contacting the service for help. These are people who evidently feel they have no-one else to turn to in their distress and the fact that they are using this service is justification enough for the funding provided by government as part of its Suicide Prevention Strategy.
According to Health Minister Michael McGimpsey, many of the people contacting the service are self-harming and suicidal.
Very often the availability of a sympathetic listener or a trained counsellor can be sufficient to help callers through their darkest moments. Those running the service are also a reference point for other aid which may benefit callers.
While most of us may consider ourselves relatively well off compared to people in other areas of the world, it is self evident that there are significant numbers of people in our own society who are under enormous strain.
The causes of that strain are as varied as the people suffering. Many people may have great difficulty in making ends meet, a situation which can only worsen with rising bills, rising unemployment and wages virtually at a standstill. People on fixed incomes or who have become unemployed may find it difficult to keep warm and fed, never mind keep a roof over their heads in the present economic climate.
For others the strain may be the break-up of relationships, which again can have economic implications if the bread winner in a home suddenly walks out, or ill-health or depression.
It has long been recognised that investment in mental health services in the province, in common with other parts of the UK, has been well below what is required. For that reason it is welcome that the Department of Health is putting £46m in mental health services over the next three years. While the telephone service is providing an easily available crutch for those in despair, the longer-term work of dealing with mental health problems can only be achieved through increased investment.
One of the most distressing aspects of suicide in Northern Ireland — aside from the fact that rates are higher than in other parts of the UK — is the number of young people who take their lives each year. This is a relatively modern phenomenon. Traditionally people who took their own lives were people with well-documented mental health problems, but today suicide covers every age group, both genders and all classes. Last year there were 242 suicides registered in Northern Ireland, a fall of 49 on the previous year, although the statistics have to be viewed with some caution as they refer only to cases dealt with through the inquest system, not the number of actual deaths in any calendar year.
The Lifeline service is one a number of initiatives being undertaken through the Suicide Prevention Strategy. It is a recognition of a crisis in society and an attempt by the Department of Health and other agencies to tackle that crisis. For that Mr McGimpsey deserves credit, but he knows that it is just part of wider battle to address the problems of mental health and available services. There are many more lifelines needed.