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TV psychologist Dr Arthur Cassidy on Co Armagh tragedies which inspired him to establish a suicide prevention agency

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, the expert talks to Laurence White about the charity he set up in Portadown and why he admires Princes William and Harry for their work to remove the stigma from mental health

Dr Arthur Cassidy at his offices in Portadown
Dr Arthur Cassidy at his offices in Portadown
Love Island contestant Mike Thalassitis
Prince Harry and Meghan at a mental health and wellbeing awareness event in Australia
The Duke of Cambridge at the launch of a mental health campaign in London

The axing of the Jeremy Kyle television show following the death of a guest a week after appearing on the programme and the suicide of two former contestants on Love Island has raised questions over the psychological help available to those seeking their moment of fame.

Dr Arthur Cassidy, who runs the Yellow Ribbon suicide prevention programme in his home town of Portadown, is not alone in being concerned at what he calls "the paucity of prevention and intervention" on such programmes.

He says: "Many of those who appear on series like Love Island believe they are going to be famous as a result and that they will have an agent within days of the programme going out. They have a distorted concept of what the future holds for them.

"I believe there are areas here which need to be regulated by government. It is not enough to tell the people appearing on the programmes that there is provision (of help) here if they need it. Some have told me that they didn't get the psychological help they should have when the programme ended. After being on a high profile programme they go home and that is the end of it."

Dr Cassidy argues that young people in particular need to told that their image of television is wrong. "They feel that if they get on television they will be famous. They need to be grounded. Maybe they can have a career on television, but only if they approach that properly. They just see the glamour and fame. They don't realise how competitive the industry is and that that phone call from an agent that they hope for may never come."

People and their mental health has been a long time interest of Dr Cassidy. He recalls growing up in Portadown and hearing of the occasional instance of someone taking their own life. "It was not like today but even then I found it shocking. Most of those involved were middle-aged men who went into the River Bann. I began to wonder why anyone would end their lives."

However, those were rare intrusions into his life at that time in the 1960s and 1970s. He was a trained singer and performed with the local Church of Ireland choir, which also featured Gloria Hunniford. Irish dancing was another interest, although he admits he was "pretty hopeless" at it.

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He regularly appeared in pantomimes staged by the church, which was very active in social activities.

He toyed with the idea of going into medicine and also journalism. He developed a close friendship with two long-standing and respected journalists in Portadown - Victor Gordon and Dougie Sloan - and was fascinated by the stories they told. "I wasn't sure if they were all true or not."

Although he describes himself as non-academic - he failed the 11-plus and the review - he was to go on to begin an academic career at Belfast College of Technology (later Belfast Met) and completed a PhD on teenagers' personality and mental health at Queen's University. He then became a research supervisor in the psychology department at the Open University, supervising postgraduate research in suicidal behaviour.

Dr Cassidy at his Yellow Ribbon suicuide prevention agency in Portadown with Ulster University students Nicole Laffin, Sam Oduor, Francesca Dalton and Olivia Szumack
Dr Cassidy at his Yellow Ribbon suicuide prevention agency in Portadown with Ulster University students Nicole Laffin, Sam Oduor, Francesca Dalton and Olivia Szumack

"I began to explore questions like: Why are we happy? Why are we depressed?. I sort of drifted into the area of suicide prevention," he recalls.

"I became quite critical of why so much money was going into mental health services and charities and yet people were still dying by their own hand."

He decided to take a novel approach to reaching out to young people. In the late 1990s he had a caravan that he drove into Portadown offering young people leaving clubs and pubs a cup of tea or coffee and listening to their problems if they wanted to talk to him.

"In a way it was a mobile mental health unit. That, for me, was the catalyst to taking a psychological approach to suicide prevention," he says.

A series of tragic deaths in Co Armagh and Wales confirmed that this was the way to go. In Laurelvale near Tandragee three 15-year-olds, all known to each other, all pupils at Craigavon Senior High School, took their lives within a three-week period in 2007.

Then Dr Cassidy was invited to go to Bridgend in Wales where 26 people - most of them teenagers - were suspected of taking their own lives in a two-year period beginning in January 2007. Some of those deaths were later ruled not to be suicide.

The Jeremy Kyle Show was axed this week
The Jeremy Kyle Show was axed this week

"I was contacted by a local Baptist pastor who was doing work similar to mine. I began to float the idea of ordinary people - not Samaritans, as such - who would be trained in basic skills to listen to people and try to turn their thoughts around," he explains.

"I began to search for answers as to why these young people on both sides of the Irish Sea were taking their own lives. Were drugs or alcohol trigger factors or did social media play a part? There was no real objective evidence."

It was then that he decided to set up his psychologically-based suicide prevention agency.

"It had to be different because I was a psychologist, not a counsellor. I, and those who assist me, are there to listen. Listening skills are one of the most effective ways to help people."

He approached the Yellow Ribbon agency in the US, which was set up in 1994 by the parents and friends of a young man, Mike Emme, who had taken his own life. He was known as an outgoing person always ready to help others, but ultimately could not find the words to seek help himself.

Dr Cassidy obtained a licence to set up a Yellow Ribbon agency in Portadown and began work aided, initially, by one psychiatric nurse.

He also takes Ulster University psychology placement students, who spend nine months to a year with Yellow Ribbon.

"Their role is to apply psychological practitioner skills learnt in the university in a real-life setting. They learn professional ethics and applied psychological theory in helping me to carry our suicidal assessments on some clients besides acquiring psychological techniques such as cognitive behaviour therapy.

"They learn about current research into suicides in social media, especially TV reality shows and the consequences for the victims of exposure to reality TV.

Love Island contestant Sophie Gradon
Love Island contestant Sophie Gradon

"We take GP referrals weekly, as well as people who drop in for a chat over coffee.

"The students then complete academic assignments and prepare and deliver presentations at colleges, universities and businesses or to whoever wants them."

After someone takes their own life there is a natural inclination to seek answers to why that happened. Often people think it is a single issue which drove the person to such despair. However, Dr Cassidy argues that suicide is often the result of a complex catalogue of factors. In older men it can be the loss of a job or the break-up of a marriage or partnership.

"They never expected these things to happen and don't have the coping skills to manage the situation. There is also the stigma and embarrassment associated with the issues and they may then turn to alcohol as a way of coping.

"Younger men - but also some women and including university graduates - get into self-harming initially. They may see no hope in the future, maybe they are fearful of what Brexit will bring. Some may feel that other people have better degrees than them and will get the best jobs. Their resilience can be quite low. When a mini trauma comes in their lives they just want to end it."

He also warns of the dangers of social media and how some people are addicted to platforms like Facebook or Instagram. "They have a real sense of loneliness. They count how many likes they have on their social media posts but they realise they don't really have any real friends. They are attention seekers who have a compulsion which drives them to be liked, to have people like them and pay attention to them.

"In these cases we almost have to rewire their minds, to show them the good of social media but also the dangers. We teach them to respect their bodies and lives and try to point out their flawed thinking.

"We take a positive approach, telling them what they are competent at and trying to build up those areas where they are weaker. We have a process of assessment when people are deemed to have suicidal thoughts or are self-harming and then we try to give them a sense of purpose."

Dr Cassidy is a frequent commentator on mental health issues in the media but also has lighter assignments such as a role in a documentary about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle ahead of their wedding.

Although he has never met any of the young royals he has been asked to explore the dynamics of Harry and Meghan's marriage, given that the he lost his mother and she is estranged from her father and how that could have affected them.

He is full of praise for Prince William and Prince Harry for their involvement with the Heads Together initiative to remove the stigma from mental health. Both had admitted that the tragic death of their mother Princess Diana (below) had a profound and long-lasting effect on their mental health.

As a parting shot, Dr Cassidy urges government to introduce mental health education right throughout school and college life. "We need to allow young people to investigate their body image and how this will change throughout their lives," he says.

"Also, many have no real concept of death. It is treated almost as a world of fantasy, as can be seen when they post notices of having a party in future with some friend who has taken their own life. We need education so young people can grow up with good positive mental health."

The Yellow Ribbon suicide prevention organisation is at yellowribbon-ni.org.uk. Find out about Mental Health Awareness Week at www.mentalhealth.org.uk. If you are affected by any of the issues in this article, you can contact the Samaritans on 084 5790 9090, or Lifeline at 080 8808 8000

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