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'Northern Ireland suicide rate doubled in 20 years - we all need to wise up about what we see on social media'

Siobhan O'Neill (44), Professor of Mental Health Studies at Ulster University, talks about losing her dad, being a full-time working single mum, and the rocketing rates of self-harm in Northern Ireland

Professor Siobhan O’Neill is a working mum
Professor Siobhan O’Neill is a working mum
Siobhan as a youngster
Siobhan with daughter Annabel
A graduation photo of Siobhan
Professor Siobhan O’Neill talks to Claire McNeilly
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

Q. You are single, although you were married for eight years prior to getting divorced. Tell us how you came to have your two-year-old daughter Annabel.

A. I decided that being a mother was something I really wanted to do, so I became a single parent. I started on that journey more than three years ago.

Q. You decided you wanted to have a child. How do you go about that?

A. There are lots of ways to do it. You can adopt or get pregnant. I went to a clinic in Spain. It wasn't successful the first time but after a couple of attempts I got pregnant with Annabel.

Q. Obviously you went through the pregnancy by yourself. How was that?

A. The first three months I was a bit anxious because I got sick and there was an uncertainty around the pregnancy, but after that I loved it. I had to have a lot of scans in the first trimester just to check everything, but after that it was fine. She was born on May 11, 2017.

Q. So it's just the two of you, and you work full-time. How do you manage childcare?

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A. I have a full-time registered childminder (Ursula) who looks after other kids too, so it's a fantastic environment for Annabel; she has older kids to play with. She's there five days a week.

Parenthood is pretty tough. It's physically and mentally demanding, but it's also the most amazing, joyous thing for me. I love it so much. She is happy and strong-willed and so beautiful.

Q. You are one of the leading authorities on suicide in Northern Ireland. Are more people taking their own lives, or are we just hearing about it happening more often?

A. More people are taking their own lives, without a doubt. We code suicides in a very consistent way in Northern Ireland, so it's accurate and the rates have doubled in the last 20 years.

It's approximately 18 per 100,000 now. There were 318 suicides here last year. Twenty years ago it would've been around 150.

Q. Is the child suicide rate a big worry?

A. It is, the numbers are much smaller. But the number of men in their 20s and 30s is really high in Northern Ireland right up to their 40s and 50s.

Child suicide is clearly behavioural, because somebody who decides their life is not worth living at that age...they're not making any sort of an informed decision about what way their lives are going to go.

Knowing how to do it is a big part of that and self-harm is hugely worrying. The rates of self-harm are rocketing. One in five of our university students in the year prior to university have self-harmed.

Q. What role does social media play when it comes to mental health? I've heard people talk about their child's mood being determined by the number of likes they get on Facebook.

A. Social media is just another way that we have of sending out messages about ourselves and seeking approval from other people. What's particularly dangerous about social media is that we have all these influencers who are actually wolves in sheep's clothing, saying they're concerned about mental health, but they're giving messages that are quite negative.

There's a lack of authenticity, particularly around Instagram, where we have these people who are portraying a fake life and yet young people are influenced by that and compare themselves. When I was growing up we looked at airbrushed images in magazines, but social media means that it is just everywhere.

Images are powerful. Images of self-harm are powerful. Unrealistic images of body sizes and shapes are powerful and if there's any vulnerability in a child it can creep in. Even as adults, it can make us question our worth.

We all need to wise up about what we see and learn to differentiate.

Q. You were once a Samaritan volunteer for two years in Galway. What did that role teach you about people?

A. There's so much sadness and grief out there and there are also so many wonderful people who are Samaritans who will sit for days and nights and listen to you.

All the hidden despair in the world and all the good in the world is there as well. It's taught me there's always somebody to listen out there and there is always somebody who cares.

Q. What is the difference between being mentally ill and, say, being down about your life or the circumstances you find yourself in?

A. This is the eternal question, because you can't measure it, it's hard to define.

If you're feeling sad all the time and it's getting in the way of you enjoying life, that's not right. You need to get somebody who knows about this stuff to check you out and see if you would benefit from treatment.

Q. Are antidepressants the answer to it?

A. They do work. There's a lot of evidence to show they work and sometimes the mental illness is because the chemicals aren't right and antidepressants will adjust that and they really work for people.

Life's too short not to take something that's going to help you lead a content and meaningful life.

Depression is devastating, not just to the individual but to everybody around that person.

Having said that, we know there are other treatments that actually go back to the root of the problem that caused the mental illness in the first place, that can help the person change how they think about the world.

If a person has a trauma you need to go back and reprogramme the person's brain and talking therapies can help.

Q. What about addiction and mental health?

A. Addiction is a defined mental illness. If your use of alcohol, drugs, your phone - self-harm is an addiction as well - is getting in the way of your ability to carry out your roles, to be a parent, do your work, then that is feeding something in the brain that's lacking and that needs to be treated. Alcohol is really damaging in Northern Ireland, it's a big problem. And there's a whole industry around that as well.

Q. Is Northern Ireland's biggest problem the lack of expenditure on mental health?

A. That's a massive problem - but look at what we're doing to young people. We hear of kids doing 20-plus examinations in a short period of time. The pressure is enormous and not every child can manage that.

We took away the 11-plus and replaced it with a system of tests that are psychologically damaging children.

The stress they're imposing on children is going to damage their mental health unless they're very resilient.

Most kids get through this, but some just can't and it does damage certain kids.

Q. How big is the problem of people using mental health issues as a get-out-of-jail-free card? If they risk losing their marriage, for example, because of something they've done, they use it as an excuse.

A. We see that with famous people. It's an excuse for bad behaviour. Somebody's done a terrible thing and they pull out the mental health card. It's disappointing when that happens.

But we don't know what people are dealing with. Usually I'm quite sympathetic. If someone's done something terrible there's usually a reason for that as well. It's very hard to judge people until you've walked in their shoes. But there's so much hidden mental health out there. It's not really the big issue.

Q. You were involved in a study in 2010 about death by suicide that involved the analysis of the characteristics of people who died. What makes one person more susceptible to suicide than another?

A. Exposure to suicide - suicide being an option in their mind because of what they've seen. Access to methods, knowing about it, knowing people who've died, a lack of hope, seeing no alternative. And the ability to do it.

Q. Your dad Mickey, a farmer, passed away peacefully last month (June 19) after a long battle with cancer and your mum Ginny, who is in her 60s, works in a shop. Tell us about your three sisters.

A. Linda (43) is an office administrator in Manchester; Jennifer (39) is a chiropodist in Portlaoise, and Sinead (30) is a pharmacist who lives close to me outside Derry. We're very close, we chat every day.

We'd lots of fun growing up.

Q. You're from Craigbane, Co Derry, where you still live in a house which you built. Was it a happy childhood?

A. We lived on a busy working farm and it was great craic. There were cows, sheep and hens. We lived with our grandparents. I picked potatoes, did turf, helped with baling hay, bringing tea to workers on the farm.

Q. How come you lived with your grandparents?

A. My parents both worked. It was a really good thing, because we had loads of extra people keeping an eye on us and lots of attention. It also meant we had an empathy and consideration of the needs of older people in a way that other kids our age didn't.

Q. You went to Claudy Primary and then Thornhill College in Derry before Queen's University to study psychology and then to Galway to do a Masters in Health. What was your career plan at the outset?

A. My plan was to get a job, get married and have kids. Just as long as there was money coming in, it was all okay. I just wanted to do something meaningful. I decided to do psychology and see where it took me.

Q. Are you a qualified psychologist?

A. I did a training course in health psychology and decided to go into research rather than therapy.

I really enjoyed being at university and I thought doing the one-to-one stuff wasn't as interesting as the whole world of academia. That really seemed more appealing, so after a while I got a research post and did my Masters in Health Psychology 1996-1998 and then I got a job doing research in the Public Health Department in Galway from 1998 to 1999. In 2000 I started to work for the university as a researcher and I did a PhD part-time alongside the job.

Q. What's the most important piece of advice which you have been given?

A. Don't take yourself too seriously.

Q. Do you believe in God?

A. No.

Q. Does death frighten you?

A. Not really. A bit.

Q. How do you relax?

A. 20 minutes of yoga every day. Diet, sleep and exercise are the most important things.

Q. Tell us about the best day of your life.

A. I don't think that it has happened yet.

Q. And what about the worst? What's the most difficult thing you've been through?

A. Divorce, without a doubt. It was amicable but it was still devastating. And there's no dressing that up.

Q. What's your greatest achievement to date?

A. Annabel.

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