Ballymena in despair over suicides and deaths caused by drug abuse, says minister
A Presbyterian minister has spoken of the "tangible wave of despair" that has hit Ballymena after a series of suicides and drug-related deaths.
Dr Martin McNeely from Ballykeel Church presided over the funeral of popular barman Christian Grey who took his own life last month, hours after a heartbreaking post about his mental health struggles on social media.
Within days the minister had buried another young man, also aged under 30, who died following a drug overdose.
Speaking of the town's pain in the wake of a series of young deaths over the last 12 months linked to mental health issues, Mr McNeely said he believes suicidal pressures and the wider use of drugs are linked.
"There is often a relationship between drug use and abuse and suicide as some of those I have dealt with who have taken their own life have been on serious antidepressants or prescription medicine," he said.
"There is no doubt that the fragmentation of society and family break-up over generations brings about a situation in which individuals feel isolated or that they are not in relationships of trust where they can really depend on or turn to people.
"Social media is also a factor in that it creates a very artificial world view and some people feel under pressure as a result."
Mr McNeely, who is in his 13th year at Ballykeel Presbyterian Church, has noticed an escalation in mental health issues among young men in his area.
"Although there is help out there and it is well advertised, young men in particular find it difficult to turn to someone and trust them," he said.
"I think those social stabilisers that might have been in existence 50 years ago aren't there anymore in terms of trusting relationships and male role models within families, education and employment.
"I don't think the situation in Ballymena is any different to other towns like Larne, Coleraine or Portadown."
Mr McNeely has called for more help to tackle the under-resourcing of psychiatric care services. He added: "I have seen instances of people getting the right help at the right time from crisis response teams who find themselves under resourced.
"Certainly social services are hugely under pressure in terms of money and the capacity to cope. Whenever someone takes their own life, you see the adverts for organisations like the Samaritans on social media urging people to please turn to someone and not to think that there's nobody listening.
"But sadly that's not how someone feels when they are in a crisis situation and instead they feel that no one listens or understands."
Mr McNeely said local churches have an important role to play in helping those in despair.
"I was really personally challenged when someone said to me at the graveside of one of the young men last month that they didn't feel there was any hope in Ballymena," he said.
"In my own congregation we have experienced hope and encouragement in that I have seen some people break addiction and God really turn lives around and heal relationships.
"I believe that the church has a critical role to play in creating a really tangible community of trust into which friendships, accountability and a sense of fulfilment, both spiritually and relationally, can be developed.
"The church also needs to be much more culturally sensitive to where people are at, which maybe we haven't always been so good at in the past.
"Partly that is as a result of the Troubles where we have become very defensive and partly it's due to our conservative Northern Ireland culture."
Like many politicians, Mr McNeely believes that the new Stormont Executive must prioritise mental health.
He said: "The head is related to the heart so whatever policy initiatives that might be applied on the ground, they need to be holistic and encourage families to stay together.
"You cannot talk about good mental health without talking about stable family environments in which children are nurtured over decades rather than dealing with young men in their mid-20s because it's too late then. We have to deal with babies in nurtured and stable family homes - that is the environment in which we will see a cultural change.
"We need a commitment to long-term family and social stability because it's only when people have relationships of trust that the heart can tell the head that everything will be okay because there are good people around who care."
Who to call if you need support
If you or anyone close to you is affected by issues raised in this article, contact the Samaritans free on 116123, or Lifeline on 080 8808 8000, who offer 24/7 phone support for those in crisis. Lifeline is also available at www.lifelinehelpline.info
Children and young people can contact Childline 24 hours a day, 365 days a year on 0800 1111, or visit childline.org.uk