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Health Minister Swann invited to meet bereaved families as call issued for mental health tsar for Northern Ireland

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Minister for Health Robin Swann

Minister for Health Robin Swann

Minister for Health Robin Swann

A mental health tsar is needed to help tackle Northern Ireland's chronic suicide problem before more young people die, Fr Gary Donegan has said.

He has invited Health Minister Robin Swann to meet some of the bereaved families in north Belfast to help him understand the extent of the crisis.

And he stressed that suicide is a societal issue to be tackled at grassroots level - not a "poisoned chalice" to be thrown at the minister "telling him to pick a silver bullet and solve everything".

"We need a mental health and suicide tsar and that should be their sole remit," Fr Donegan said.

"Part of that would be having people trained to go into schools to talk to children.

"I'd like to invite Health Minister Robin Swann to come to north Belfast. He could be part of the solution. But we're all part of it."

The priest continued: "Basic life skills need to be on the school curriculum. About what is right and wrong. What is morally acceptable and unacceptable. The dangers and joys of social media. The need to tell your parents or teacher if you come across something."

Fr Donegan said he believes that "social media plays a massive role in suicide".

"When a child lifts a mobile phone, an iPad or a computer, there is an issue of the accessibility of certain material," he said.

"There's all sorts of stuff about asphyxiation, thrills, blacking out etc and the reality is... do that wrong once and you end up wondering did the child deliberately take their own life, was it an accident?

"But the end result is the same. It's a devastated family and they're the ones that have to pick up the pieces."

The former parish priest of Holy Cross said suicide has "gone beyond areas of social deprivation, where drug and alcohol abuse is prevalent".

He added that without action "the problem will escalate and we'll see younger and younger people dying".

Fr Donegan believes the return of Stormont presents a timely opportunity to tackle the crisis.

"We have a new start with Stormont, but there's no magic to any of this," he said.

"Robin Swann comes across as a good man, a family man, a man with integrity. I'm inviting him to the Houben Centre in north Belfast to meet these families bereaved by suicide to show him what this is actually like.

"I would like to talk to him about suicide and drugs - the link between mental health issues, addiction, drugs - to persuade him that we need this mental health tsar."

Fr Donegan also outlined some of the issues that young people dealing with mental health difficulties are confronted with.

He added: "If some young person present themselves with mental health issues with the possibility of suicide, he's not going to be seen in six weeks -he needs these system then and there," he said.

"This isn't about throwing a poison chalice onto Robin and telling him to pick a silver bullet and solve everything.

"He has to realise we have his back. Civic society needs to step up to the plate too."

Belfast Telegraph