Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: Is our wariness around people taking their own lives making Northern Ireland's suicide epidemic more prevalent?

Public information films like those highlighting drink-driving could cut the death toll, argues Malachi O'Doherty

'The idea was raised by journalist Allison Morris last week that our journalistic wariness may, indeed, be part of the problem of our locally high suicide rates; higher than in England, Scotland, Wales or the Irish Republic.' File image posed by model
'The idea was raised by journalist Allison Morris last week that our journalistic wariness may, indeed, be part of the problem of our locally high suicide rates; higher than in England, Scotland, Wales or the Irish Republic.' File image posed by model
Malachi O'Doherty

Malachi O'Doherty

I am going to break a taboo of journalism. I am going to describe a suicide. There are two main reasons why journalists avoid doing this. One is to spare pain to the family of the dead person. The other is to avoid promoting "copy-cat" suicide. But this is acceptable if the avoidance of any detailed description of suicide does no actual harm.

The idea was raised by journalist Allison Morris last week that our journalistic wariness may, indeed, be part of the problem of our locally high suicide rates; higher than in England, Scotland, Wales or the Irish Republic.

Alison had just lost a friend and had asked someone else in her family how many suicides he knew of and he came up with an astonishing figure: 30.

A few years ago I made a radio report on suicide and interviewed people on the street in Cookstown for a vox pop. One man told me that 10 of his friends had killed themselves. I considered not broadcasting it, because it seemed hardly believable. Others, in a follow-on discussion, had no trouble believing the figure, but took issue with my use of the word "commit".

To say someone has "committed suicide" is to use the language of sin, or crime, and suicide should not be stigmatised, they said. We need to understand and empathise more with those who end their lives.

But the word "commit" has other meanings. Committing yourself to death is the biggest commitment you can make. You can't change your mind about it afterwards.

I also spoke to other journalists about whether and why they avoided any detail about suicide and often declined to cover the story of a suicide altogether.

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One told me about a young man who had hanged himself from a tree on Black Mountain and whose body was visible across several housing estates.

Wouldn't people find it strange to have something that was so visible to them being ignored by their local paper?

The reporter said the last thing he wanted was distressed and grieving relatives coming to his office to give off to him.

And I understand that. Yet, the same coyness does not apply to the reportage of murder or accidental death.

When a group of teenagers die in a car crash in the early hours of the morning we get the images of the wreckage and the wheel-skids and an interview with a fireman or police officer at the scene urging us to take more care and not to drink and drive. In public information films urging us to drive carefully we see the impact and hear the screaming.

Perhaps we should have public information films like that to illustrate the ugliness of suicide.

In the usual appeals to people contemplating suicide we urge them to talk to somebody. We give them the numbers for the Samaritans (028 9066 4422 or 084 5790 9090). But should we not say more to them?

If you kill yourself at 20 you are throwing away a likely 60 years of life, and you can have no conception of what that might entail.

When I read Allison's figure for the number of suicides her sibling knew, I tried to count up those that I know.

Leaving out people that I have not actually been friendly with, that is, laughed and had craic with, I got five.

The one that affected me most was Gerlinde. I had met her in India in 1977. We got very close. She had a psychotic breakdown while there and recovered a little.

She came back to India to visit me. I visited her three times in Austria. We had good times and bad times, intimacy and laughter, quarrels and huffs. The whole range.

The last time I saw her, she was surly and defensive. When we went to the theatre she would buy a ticket for the seat on the other side of her so that she did not have to make contact with a stranger.

She wore gloves all the time. She told me that she had a gun and I didn't know whether to believe that. But friendship was becoming more difficult.

I phoned her up a few times then we lost contact and it was only years later that I learnt that she was dead.

She had nailed the doors of her bathroom and she had run a bath and got into the water and then she had shot herself in the head. Her daughters discovered her body a week later. You can imagine what a mess that was.

There is no doubt that she wanted to destroy herself utterly.

That would be true of another man I knew who hanged himself. In his case he was coping with persistent physical pain and could take no more. Two other self-inflicted deaths of people I knew well might have turned out otherwise. The intention was not to die, but it included a willingness to die.

One of these was my old classmate Joe McDonnell, who died on hunger strike. Another was my Indian guru, who died while fasting.

Last year, in India, a man who was close to him at the time described how Swamiji had suffered a massive bowel haemorrhage after fasting for 38 days.

So, self-inflicted death has potential ambiguities around it, from cry for help gone wrong, to protest, to frantic and urgent self-annihilation.

I have been reading through recent journalism on suicide.

Much of it tells me that the one who died was a person in a million, an absolute gem, that he or she is with the angels.

There is so much of that that I wonder if the ones who are perpetually buoyant are the ones we should worry most about.

Not existing anymore, the departed one has no sense of the devastation left behind, the hurt and the guilt inflicted on family and friends, the appalling confusion and horror.

Have we done the right thing in telling the depressed among us that there is no stigma attached to killing yourself when, in reality, the damage done is enormous, far beyond what those who kill themselves would have wanted to inflict.

One possible outcome of our coyness about suicide is that those who contemplate it think that they will only be spoken well of afterwards; that they will be loved in death as they never were in life and, perhaps, if we showed them the rope and the grief, as we do with road accidents, some at least would think again and we'd get those awful numbers down.

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, contact the Samaritans on Freecall 116 123 or Lifeline 080 8808 800

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