Make mental health top priority, says MLA who lost pals to suicide
An MLA has said the loss of three school friends through suicide when he was 15 years old has prompted him to call on the new Secretary of State to make mental health his number one priority in office.
Upper Bann MLA Jonathan Buckley revealed he has written to Julian Smith calling on him to urgently address Northern Ireland's suicide and mental health issues epidemic.
Northern Ireland has the highest suicide rate in the UK, with 300 people losing their lives to suicide here each year.
DUP MLA Mr Buckley recalled how he lost three school friends in the space of three months when he was a pupil at Craigavon Senior High School.
"I personally have lost friends," he said. "I will never forget the harrowing impact of suicide while I was a pupil at Craigavon Senior High School in 2007 when the school was rocked by the tragic deaths of three boys in my year group."
In June of that year GCSE student Lee Walker (15) died in Tandragee, the third classmate to have taken his own life in less than a month.
Five days earlier his friend James Topley took his own life.
The body of James was discovered in the nearby village of Laurelvale, at the same spot where three weeks previously the body of Wayne Browne, also 15, had been discovered.
"They were three young men with so much to offer," said Mr Buckley.
"I remember talking in the school corridor to one friend just hours before he took his own life.
"Our school fell into a deep state of mourning, with many questions being asked regarding the deaths of three 15-year-old boys within one month.
"As a school community we had seen the very worst but also the very best of humanity as teachers and pupils rallied together to comfort one another at a time of great distress.
"I will never forget the great lengths teachers went to at that time to comfort pupils. It went above and beyond anything I had ever witnessed.
"I realised then more had to be done to help those who suffer silently.
"We need an urgent review of mental health services in this country and in the absence of Stormont I would appeal to Mr Smith to progress this."
Mr Buckley said mental health and suicide must be right at the top of Secretary of State's inbox.
"Families and communities throughout Northern Ireland have been devastated," he added.
"As a society we are indebted to the services that are there, including charities and other organisations, and I thank them for that. However, they can't do it on their own. We owe it to our communities to provide a fit-for-purpose support network, from the earliest possible intervention.
"The Protect Life 2 draft strategy is sitting on a shelf, which in itself is an absolute scandal.
"We need our Secretary of State to intervene and drive the delivery of a suicide strategy for Northern Ireland."
The most recent Public Health Information and Research Branch data showed that the Belfast Trust area had a rate of suicide death of 24.7 per 100,000 people between 2015 and 2017.
Overall Northern Ireland had a suicide rate of 16.5 deaths per 100,000, compared to England's rate of 9.2 per 100,000.
Northern Ireland spends less than half per capita supporting people suffering with mental health issues than is spent in England.