Understanding one of the last great taboos
Suicide accounts for more deaths in Northern Ireland than car accidents, so why is the subject still shrouded in so much stigma and shame, asks Ivan Little
It’s a conversation which I will never forget. The wine was flowing freely at the house party and the mood was laid-back before the chat suddenly switched to darker issues.
The woman beside me started to talk about her children and how her teenage son had tried to take his own life on three occasions.
She told me how his father had been shot dead and how she later discovered that a relative had abused her son as a child, a potent mix of tragedy and suffering with which he couldn’t cope.
The woman said that after the third suicide attempt, she saved her son’s life by getting him to hospital in time but as he lay in bed, he whispered quietly through his tears to his mother. “Please, don’t stop me the next time. I just can’t take this any longer. Please let me go.”
I have never met the woman again so I have no idea if the teenager ever succeeded in ending his life. But hearing about his agony and his heartbreaking plea has had a deep and long-lasting impact.
So when I was asked to become the patron of the Niamh Louise foundation in mid-Ulster, I had no hesitation in accepting the invitation.
And over the years, I have been privileged to see the work of the suicide awareness charity at first hand and humbled to meet countless families who have lost their loved ones to suicide.
Tonight, three of those families will be the focus of a moving hour-long documentary which will be broadcast on BBC Northern Ireland after the 10 o’clock news and which confirms that more people here die by suicide than in road accidents.
The programme made by the Tern TV company could easily have wallowed in sensationalism. But instead its by-word is sensitivity.
There is no commentary. The three families speak for themselves in the documentary which is called Breaking the Silence.
With a delicacy of touch, the programme-makers manage to spare viewers the harrowing details of exactly how the three victims took their own lives. But even without the words, the message is clear.
Catherine and James McBennett set up the Niamh Louise foundation in 2006 a year after the death of 15-year-old Niamh McKee. Catherine who was her mother and James who was her stepfather tell of their personal devastation — an earthquake they call her death — but they also relate how the trauma inspired them to set up their charity to help other potential victims.
The foundation now has four resource centres in Dungannon, Cookstown, Coalisland and Richhill.
Catherine and James say they are trying to prevent more deaths and to shatter the taboo of suicide in the Tyrone and Armagh areas.
“We are trying to reach out to families like us so that their children can be saved.”
It’s a message echoed by the father of another teenage victim of suicide, Martha Kelly.
Brian Kelly, who is also closely involved with the foundation, says: “I know it will never stop. But if we can reduce it I will go to my grave happy.” Brian who has been fighting cancer also insists he wants people to confront suicide in the same open way they now discuss what he says used to be euphemistically called “The big C”
The third family in the documentary are the Cunninghams.
Painter and decorator Tony Cunningham left behind a wife and two children. Sharon Cunningham says “Mental health is brushed under the carpet. I don’t know if Tony would have gone to a mental health place because of the stigma attached to it.”
She adds: “He was sick, he died by suicide. There is no shame in it. It came to my door around 10.30pm one night and God knows whose door it is going to come to next”
The personal and moving stories told by the three families have many elements in common but the question they all ask is: why?
Why did their beloved children or husband do what they felt driven to do? And they each acknowledge that they don’t believe they will ever find out the answer.
The programme doesn’t include interviews with the health professionals who are dealing with suicide but instead it includes their opinions on captions which break up the families’ testimonies.
Iain McGowan from the University of Ulster says suicide isn’t simply a mental health problem and he believes there are social, economic, cultural and emotional factors at play as well.
And reflecting on the fact that many people who take their own lives are teenagers, Joe Henderson, vice-principal of Lismore Comprehensive School in Craigavon, says: “Young people today are facing increasingly complex, difficult and often hidden challenges.
“The need for a co-ordinated approach to promote and help sustain their positive emotional health is greater than ever.”
The programme also discloses that over 1,000 people a year in Northern Ireland go to hospital after incidents of self-harm.
The McBennetts, who have recently had a new baby, have already seen the programme. And they believe it will serve as an invaluable tool in their quest to spread the word about suicide prevention, intervention and ‘post-vention’ as they call it.
Breaking the Silence, BBC One NI, tonight, 10.45pm