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Seaview Primary principal calls for support after suicides in Belfast community

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Corinne Latham, principal of Seaview Primary School

Corinne Latham, principal of Seaview Primary School

Corinne Latham, principal of Seaview Primary School

The principal of a north Belfast primary school has said mental health issues, drugs and social media are playing a role in the suicide epidemic hitting Northern Ireland's young people.

Corinne Latham said that since the start of the school year, five people have taken their own lives in the local community connected to Seaview Primary.

She called for statutory support for school counselling for primary school pupils - but she also voiced concerns over attitudes to suicide, especially on social media.

"In Northern Ireland, because of Facebook etc, sometimes it's nearly like we glorify people who take their own lives," she said.

"That's not to say that there's not a place for expressing sympathy, but this (suicide) is not something that is okay.

"Think about those people you leave behind - but it's actually deeper than that.

"Think about the people who might see you. Think about that wee four or five year-old who's out playing on the street who might find you. Everybody was appalled to hear about the horrific teenager murder case in Dublin recently but we have children coming into our schools every day who see things that children shouldn't see."

She added: "And because our children, through the Troubles, grew up seeing things that probably they shouldn't have seen either, that's why we have this mental health epidemic and it's awful because nobody ever saw it as an issue or thought it was going to happen."

Mrs Latham said the recent sudden death of an 11-year-old boy in Belfast "tells us that the personal development side of our curriculum is as important as literacy and numeracy".

"Quite often we're hearing of young people in their 20s and 30s taking their own lives but when it's happening to people who are only 11 then it's time to refocus our attention," she said.

Mrs Latham said the situation is beyond crisis point and called for statutory support for counselling for primary school pupils.

"Every school probably should have a school counsellor as part of the staff," she said, adding that at present "teachers and school leaders are just left to get on with it".

Mrs Latham, who has been at Seaview for five years, said the suicide problem is "accelerating" and believes the influence of drugs is a major problem.

"In terms of the mental health aspect Northern Ireland has a very difficult underbelly that nobody seems to want to talk about and it's starting to kill people," she said. "And that's the reality.

"There are people supplying these young people with things (drugs) they're taking to make them feel better but the outcome has not been good for quite a few of them.

"The reality is that young people who are taking drugs that are accelerating their feelings about certain things is having a devastating impact because it's not just hitting the family.

"Social services informed us that our children did see five body bags coming out of flats over the last few months - that is a reality in Ligoniel." Her comments follow a commitment by Health Minister Robin Swann to make mental health, substance misuse and suicide the "key priorities" for his department.

Mr Swann also said he will visit north Belfast in the coming days to "discuss how we can all come together to make a real and lasting difference" after three deaths within days of each other linked to mental health.

Deaglan Cole (22) was the third young person in that area to die in recent days.

He had been troubled for years, but the tipping point came with the death of a friend just before Christmas.

His family thought he would be okay, but at a party just days into the New Year he descended into a drugs binge which ultimately cost him his life.

"I can't believe I've lost my child," said Colette Cole, Deaglan's mother.

"I just thought 'what a waste of a beautiful, beautiful child'. He was lovely.

"It broke my heart, I just wanted to lift him."

Deaglan had been a pupil at Holy Cross Boys in Ardoyne, which has subsequently confirmed that 27 former pupils have lost their lives to suicide or drugs.

Principal Kevin McAreavey told UTV: "As a community, bound and united in grief, we like to move forward in promoting positive mental health and there's a lot of great organisations in this area who will run with this and who will make this better and I hope they do."

At Deaglan's funeral at Holy Cross Church last Friday, Father Gary Donegan said drug dealers were "parasites feeding off the actual most vulnerable people in society".

He said they were bringing "mayhem and horror to our homes and to our communities".

Fr Donegan added: "Deaglan was one of those people. As his mother very bravely said, first and foremost he was an addict and he made the wrong choices in life."

Northern Ireland Children's Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma said mental health issues are manifesting in "younger and younger" students.

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