Facing suicide

Between The Lines
Man in dark corner

Facing suicide

As the number of suicides continues to rise in Mayo, we take a closer look at the issue

Edwin McGreal

The sense of grief, hopelessness and absolute incomprehension among families of those who take their own lives is something Cllr Michael Kilcoyne has encountered far too often. As an undertaker contracted to coroners in Mayo, he is often at the scene of suicide deaths, taking the remains away for a post-mortem. In all cases, he finds, there is one constant. “The family always say ‘could they not have talked to us?’.”
Speaking to The Mayo News this week, Michael Kilcoyne alluded to the pain of those left behind. “There is a real sense of hopelessness among the family. I don’t think people who take their own lives have any understanding or comprehension of the grief and the trauma they bring to the family, they simply can’t have.”
The problem is a multi-faceted one. As Michael Kilcoyne observes there is no suicide ‘type’. Males and female of all ages and social and economic background have taken their lives in recent years in Mayo. Some are victims of financial problems from the economic downturn but far from everyone falls into that category.
It is a sentiment that Dr Eleanor Fitzgerald-Loftus agrees with. She works as the Coroner for North Mayo, and in that capacity she has presided at an ever-increasing number of inquests where the verdict is death by suicide. The only thing universal about the deaths is their tragic nature.
“There has been a lot of talk about the issue of suicide recently, and links with depression and with the recession have been discussed. They may be triggers, but we cannot just limit examination to these issues. Victims are not all young men, nor are they all alcoholics. They are from both sexes and of all age groups, much more so than was the case in other years,” she told The Mayo News.

TRYING to chart a direction towards any sort of solution is not easy when the problem is so nuanced. But talking to those at the coalface, two issues become apparent. One is societal and the stigma that exists around mental illness; the other is the level of care available.
In the last 12 months, Dr Fitzgerald-Loftus has presided at four inquests of people under the age of 20 where suicide was the cause of death. Communication, or the lack thereof, is a huge issue in these cases, she argues, and an indication of a larger problem in society.
“Instead of trying to talk about their problems, people have lost the ability to express themselves,” she said, explaining that the growth of technology has impacted on people’s way of communicating and dealing with their own problems. “They are not interacting with people as much as they once were, particularly younger people.”
The issue of communication links in to another issue – the stigma of mental illness and Irish people’s inability, generally, to talk about their problems. Dr Fitzgerald-Loftus believes we have a long way to go in dealing with the stigma surrounding mental illness. “[Mental illness] is a thing we don’t talk about, that we shy away from. In America, it is the norm for people to talk openly about their mental well-being. We don’t have that type of culture here,” she said.
Michael Kilcoyne feels that this cultural deficit is often reflected at policy-making levels, and he argues not enough is being done by the state at a local or national level to tackle the crisis.
“A whole change in society’s attitude is needed. You have two types of health well-being – your physical and your mental. A lot of money has been spent on physical health in this country and rightly so but the amount spent on mental health is nowhere near adequate.
“We’ve seen huge funding recently for the Road Safety Authority – and rightly so and they have drastically cut the number of deaths on Irish roads – however, the number of deaths by suicide is up on four times that, yet it is not given the same priority in terms of funding.”
Kilcoyne also feels that suicide needs to be given more priority in society generally. “We are all on about the bad roads, but we’re not talking about people who we’ve neglected and who see themselves as having no hope – that is a reflection on all of us. We’re all supposed to be our brother’s keeper, but the reality is we’re not,” he argued.

Access to services
While societal difficulties are one aspect of the problem, the whole area of the provision and access to services around mental health is something that both Dr Fitzgerald-Loftus and Cllr Kilcoyne take issue with.
“I had a crisis situation recently and I had to practically pull down the walls to get something done,” recalls Dr Fitzgerald-Loftus. “I was getting answering machines and basically getting nothing done. There isn’t a direct line for GPs to access, so it can be prohibitive. Even if people try to access the services themselves they encounter waiting lists. The area of mental health needs more funds.”
If, in the morning, Michael Kilcoyne felt low and needed help, he says he wouldn’t know where to turn. “If I don’t know where to go, as a county councillor and someone who has been encountered so many cases, how is the ordinary person in the street meant to know? We should be so used to hearing how to deal with mental health problems that we know where to go for help.”
Cllr Kilcoyne also highlighted the fact that it can be difficult to get people into the relevant services in Co Mayo. “I’ve received representation and expressed my concerns about the lack of care a number of people have received in this county … then we hear of the closure of psychiatric units in Castlebar and Ballina, and you have to wonder,” he says.
Michael Kilcoyne said his work has seen him involved in over 20 cases of suicide in the last year in Mayo, adding that this is only a percentage of the total figure. John O’Dwyer, Coroner for Mayo South, roughly half the county, presided over 21 inquests from suicide deaths in the year 2010. According to Kilcoyne, the figure for 2012 in Mayo is already at seven. The crisis, sadly, seems to be getting worse.