Philip McTaggart: 'I relived my own son's suicide every single day'
Victoria O'Hara talks to the chairman of PIPS about his decision to step aside at the suicide prevention group which he joined after his son's death and the impact this had on his own life
Q. You have been involved with PIPS (Public Initiative for the Prevention of Suicide and Self-harm) since it was founded, why did you make the decision now to step aside?
A. It would have been the 11th anniversary of Philip's death on April 23–he died in 2003.
Probably for a couple of years I've been thinking about a new direction to go for myself. I knew on what would have been the 10th anniversary I wanted a change.
I just felt the time was right–the appropriate time to make the decision.
Q. Was there one particular incident that got you thinking you needed to find a new direction?
A. There was a time I was going to a house to visit a family who had lost a loved one and I was sitting talking with the family and they were in a terrible state, in shock, at the thought they had died this way. They were crying and I left and I went back the next day.
The woman in the house said to me, 'Philip, my sister didn't believe it was suicide until she saw you'. That had a really big impact on me because I believe I am a lot more than that. I'm a father too.
Q. You became almost 'the face' of suicide prevention in Northern Ireland. Was this overshadowing your identity as a person, did you feel it was beginning to define who you were as a person?
A. When 11 years came around my entire life was about suicide prevention. There is no doubt about it, I changed the moment Philip died, as many people will when they have lost a loved one. But my life was all of a sudden dedicated to suicide prevention and self-harm.
It didn't matter who called me my phone was never off.
I remember taking my family away and I was still getting calls when I was in Disneyland Paris.
I lost a bit of a connection with my family. I want to reconnect with them. I have twins who are 11 years old. I loved that work, I enjoyed it but and I will continue with it, but just not in the same level.
Q. After the death of Philip in 2003, it must have been so difficult for you as a father dealing with that grief, what was it that made you want to start the charity? Was it something you had to do?
A. When Philip died it was an absolute shock, it really was. What impacted on me was that I couldn't see the signs. I couldn't hear what he was saying. It really hit me and because the fact it was suicide it was one of those things that you never expected.
The peace process was kicking off, the Holy Cross dispute had ended, everybody was looking towards a better time, then 'bang', you get hit with this.
Q. What was the first few weeks and months like after Philip died?
A. I remember at Philip's Mass I asked Fr Aiden Troy to read out a letter that I gave him and a local newspaper picked it up.
I got a number of calls. The next thing I was on the Kilroy Silk show.
But then more deaths took place after that. It was a terrible and frightening time for the community.
People just asked me if I would talk to the families.
Q. How hard is it when you talk to someone who has lost a loved one to suicide?
A. What people say is, 'It came out of the blue', but in the vast majority of cases, when you look back at that individual's life, you will definitely see where there was a sign or they said something happened that can link to how they are feeling at that moment.
I actually went back to look at photographs of Philip and I could see there were changes, but I couldn't recognise it at the time. That is why training to spot there is a problem is so, so important.
Q. What had been the situation in north and west Belfast at the time for young people, but in particular young men regarding depression and suicide?
A. Everybody was frightened. We were coming from a conflict situation to a silent killer where it could impact anyone.
This silent killer didn't recognise religions, it was neither Catholic or Protestant. The tears and the sadness, the hurt and the pain was exactly the same.
Q. What finally led to the beginning of PIPS?
A. I went to a meeting in the health centre on the Crumlin Road. I spoke to the lady who at the time was a co-ordinator of suicide awareness.
I asked how long have you been in the job, she said a year. Philip had died around three months. She left the room and there were boxes upon boxes on suicide prevention.
I said I didn't even know there was a suicide co-ordinator or this service was here. She said the leaflets had been there for six months.
What got me was here was someone a stone's throw away from my son's home. It was that moment we decided to rap the doors and put the leaflets through.
That's when I took on the challenge – and it was a big one.
Q. What are your memories of the time when PIPS finally opened?
A. We set up PIPS in Duncairn Gardens, Mary McAleese, along with Dawn Purvis opened the building.
It did receive so much support –it came from the community and the people who had been so badly affected by loved ones dying by suicide.
The name PIPS was just not a name, it was my wee lad's name and to see it plastered out really impacted on me.
Q. Can you elaborate on that, Philip? Was it hard to deal with in terms of focusing on the work?
A. Absolutely, it felt I lost Philip a second time around. Even today it still has this impact on me to see the name. I remember at that time I had to go to a counsellor about it because of its impact. I experienced bad depression trying to cope after I lost him. I decided that I was going to continue and nothing was going to stop me for the simple reason this came to me. I didn't ask to be that person, it just happened to be me.
Q. But what changed?
A. Sometimes you can lose your laughter, the fun in life is removed. And you do change as a person. I enjoyed – in a strange sense– working with families who had lost loved ones because I was able to connect with them in a way because of my experience. We shared a heartache.
Somewhere along the line you have to stop and make sure you are looking after your own mental health and your own well-being is at the top of the list.
Q. Were you concerned for your own health?
A. Yes, because I had been diagnosed with Crone's Disease. They put it down to stress.
It was a lot of stress in this type of work that impacted on me because none of the PIPS organisations received any funding and it was a constant battle to try and continually keep the organisation going.
Q. Can you explain how being so dedicated for 11 years impacted on you?
A. For me, I suppose it does take its toll and every time I walk into someone's house – and it didn't matter what age the individual was – I was reliving the trauma of my loved one again.
I think everyone in this line of work needs to be really aware of this.
While they think it might not impact on them or affect them, somehow it is.
Q. What was it like when you started out?
A. It was really truly all about helping people. Now these organisations, some of them are turning into businesses and it didn't sit well with me.
I know PIPS and Suicide Awareness and FASA are doing tremendous work in helping people and there is no doubt they are helping people stay alive.
Q. Do any moments stand out?
A. I remember Gerry Adams got us a meeting with the minister of health, then Angela Smith.
There were all these civil servants around her telling us what a wonderful job was taking place, and what a wonderful strategy they had and how they were helping to prevent suicides. I remember butting in and saying, 'where is this strategy'? Angela Smith said get all the information and present it to these organisations. That was in 2003. Still to this day that has never been sent out. It wasn't until 2006 that a strategy was launched by Michael McGimpsey. It had been brushed under the carpet.
Q. What was the toughest part for you?
A. I believe wholeheartedly I was doing this for a reason, I believed I was helping people. The sad thing was every time I was connecting with people, there wasn't a big team, we worked hard but we could only offer so much support.
Q. Did you feel you were up against a brick wall at times?
A. What I found sometimes was that things weren't being done quickly enough. That there was what I would call 'red tape' to get through. I would say, 'let's go for that'. But there would have been somebody saying 'hold on a minute'.
There are so many things now that are policy and procedure, I understand there is a need for that but sometimes it gets in the way of helping somebody.
Q. Did you get frustrated?
A. Yes, I would have heard, 'is that in our policy?' I'd say for crying out loud, never mind that. Does the person need help? Go and get them, bring them in. If we have to go through all that they could be dead. I suppose I was just passionate about it.
If you know that person genuinely needs help and you do that, they are going to feel 100% better.
Q. How hard was continually fundraising or finding the money to keep things going?
A. I did see things that hurt me. I believe funding should be allocated on a basis if they see the organisation reduces suicide.
We shouldn't be waiting to see if that area has the highest number of suicides in north, west, south or east Belfast to access extra funding.
If they are doing fantastic work I believe they should be rewarded for that. And it should be equally allocated.
Q. What concerns you most about that?
A. There are 20 organisations in Belfast funded by Protect Life. But a new government process coming out will mean that all the organisations will have to tender for their money.
That means there is a possibility only three organisations in north Belfast will be funded.
Q. Do you think the government gives enough to mental health services?
A. No, mental health receives about 2% of the health budget – that is very, very little money.
We are not being supported enough. That is one of the key issues that impacted me. I used to lie awake thinking, God, how are we going to do this?
If we look back 11 years ago, there is more help available than there ever was.
Q. So what needs to happen now?
A. There are more organisations but it doesn't mean everything is okay and we need to stop, there's still a lot more work. The Public Health Agency and the Mental Health services are doing their utmost to prevent suicide. And all the ministers we worked with were very supportive. But it always comes down to money. There are more people dying by suicide than die on our roads. Suicide is the third leading cause, next to heart disease and cancers in Northern Ireland. But if we don't deal with the issue of depression, suicide and stress within the next 10 years, suicide will become the second leading cause.
Q. Do families need more help?
A. We know hospital staff aren't trained to be able to automatically know what to do when someone comes in with mental health problems. I've seen this first hand. They are given all the support they can in the hospital then they are sent home with their family. If they aren't given the proper information and support, within six months you could find two other members of the family suffering from depression.
Q. What impact will this have on other members?
A. If you suffer with depression your sleep pattern is messed up, you are up at different times from everybody else, people start to follow you because they don't know where you are going – they start to worry. It impacts the whole family. I've been in homes on the Shankill Road, I've been in homes in Sandy Row. What I heard a lot was if you have been touched by suicide, that you can see it in your eyes.
Q. During the time of Philip's death there were more young people who took their lives. Was there a feeling of disillusionment among young people at the time?
A. I ask myself that question every single day about my son. Even about people today. But there were many, many different issues young people were facing. The conflict was coming to a close but there were pressures, like education, employment and relationship pressures. There were also young people threatened at that time by some groups that led them to a path that made them feel life wasn't worth living.
Q. Do you ever feel you get an answer to the question 'why?'
A. When I go to visit that grave at the City Cemetery, it really hurts me to look around and see Philip's friends around him. And I'm sure there are other families out there when they are going to see their loved ones and see the headstones. I'm sure the question that comes into their head is why? It took me a long time, but I understood the question why was fitting a jigsaw puzzle together and I knew the last piece of that jigsaw puzzle I was never going to get. Because the person who had that was Philip.
Q. How do you deal with that?
A. Now, I've come to terms with that and I celebrate the 17 years that I had with Philip. It took me a while to get to that point. I try now to laugh about the good things. When I was in PIPS I only ever remembered how Philip died – but there was more to him. The good times. I had just forgot them all.
Q. How would you describe yourself now?
A. I remember when I was suffering from depression after Philip's death. My brain started to shut out all the positive things and focused on the red things. I had to change my thinking to get me back again. I'm now a positive person.
Q. What is your focus now?
A. I loved that work, I enjoyed it but and I will continue with it in a different way. I just became a professional life coach. I want to get into schools, youth groups or church groups. It is about training people to spot if someone is feeling depressed and ask the right questions and get them the proper help.
Q. What has changed in how people talk since PIPS was launched?
A. Nobody is looking at anybody anymore, everybody is wearing earphones, they are on their phone, their tablet. We are all ignoring everyone. How are we going to recognise if someone is in pain? We need to teach young people to communicate face-to-face. Technology can help people if they are lonely but we are losing the art of communication.
Q. Given the emotional toll it has had, looking back at your time with PIPS, do you regret it or are you proud of it?
A. I'm proud. Yes, there were heartbreaking, hard times. But there are two premises within north Belfast that PIPS helped develop that I believe are saving people. I'm proud there will be a new office opening in Larne. I'm proud of giving hope to people.
But I want to say thank you to the community in north Belfast. I am proud of how they rallied when a spotlight was finally shone on this crisis.
It is the community that supported PIPS all the way through, not the government. They stood behind us and made sure we could deal with these issues. Now I'm looking forward to my next chapter in life.
If you are depressed, or know of someone feeling despair, you can call Lifeline on 0808 808 8000.