Playing a Deadly Game-irish Echo 3/30/05
Philip McTaggart Sr., with a portrait of his son Philip, who committed suicide two years ago.
In divided North, old suspicions hinder suicide-prevention efforts
By Ailbhe Jordan
Philip McTaggart is from the Ardoyne area in North Belfast. Two years ago his 17-year-old son, also named Philip, took his own life. "I was Philip's father, and that guilt fell on my shoulders," McTaggart said last week. "When you try to see a counselor, there can be up to a four-week wait. I waited six weeks, but luckily a friend of mine knew someone who was a counselor and was able to help me through it. Grieving parents get nothing, other than going to their doctor and getting pills."

Ireland has the highest rate of suicide per capita in Europe. Last year, 577 people took their lives. Ardoyne is in the Eastern Health Board region, where in 2003, 132 people killed themselves and 761 people attempted suicide. Almost half of suicides were people under 35.

In an area that has possibly the highest rate of suicide in Ireland, there are just 16 public hospital beds for adolescent mental-health patients. There is one full-time suicide coordinator for the whole of North and West Belfast.

Last year, McTaggart and his colleague Jo Murphy set up the PIPS project (Public Initiative to Prevent Suicide and Self-Harm).

"There is nothing for families trying to cope with suicide -- and its not my opinion, its a fact," he said. "I've been working at this since my son took his life. I went to Stormont last August to a meeting with community groups from East and West Belfast. Another meeting was supposed to take place in October; it only took place three weeks ago. "During that eight-week delay, eight people took their own lives in Belfast. A young man from Lagan is being buried tomorrow. They are literally playing with people's lives. The first Christmas I had lost my son, a young girl who was self-harming went to the Mater Hospital in Belfast. After waiting three hours, she went home and hanged herself.

"More people die by suicide than on our roads each year. Why is there not the same money and urgency put into suicide as there is into road safety? There should be someone you can phone to get them help. In the middle of the night, there's nothing, other than to bring them to hospital and waiting hours for a psychiatric assessment. Even then, the attitude in the hospital is often like, 'Well this is something they've done to themselves, and there's people waiting who have been in car crashes.' "

Since its inception, PIPS has worked tirelessly to raise awareness about suicide in Northern Ireland. Through its lobbying, the group got funding from the North and West Belfast Social Services and Health Trust to train eight suicide counselors. The PIPS project has also raised money through publicity events in Northern Ireland and the U.S.

"Most of the funding we get is from the community; they rally around us," McTaggart said.

"But we need more measures, more funding. We receive endless calls from people who need help."

Fr. Aidan Troy from the Holy Cross parish in Belfast has counseled many suicidal young people.

"A few million pounds may seem like a lot of money to you or me, but if its not invested in education and health, its eventually going to lead to more suicides on the ground," he said.

Despite the work of PIPS, obstacles to effective suicide prevention programs remain in Northern Ireland's divided communities. Indeed, many experts believe that the ongoing tensions between Catholic and Protestants is a trigger to some suicidal behavior.

Last May, doctors Fred Bemak and Robert Coyne from the international Counselors Without Borders organization traveled to Belfast. Led by Terry Ryan, president of the Florida-based Children of Ireland organization, they carried out a number of meetings with representatives from the Trust, local community groups and paramilitary organizations.

"Initially, the doctors were very well-received," Ryan said. "We met with community groups, people on both sides. We met with paramilitaries. We recommended bringing the two communities together to discuss these issues."

Said Dr. Bemak of the research team: "We suggested that one-on-one counseling was not working, but the Trust was very opposed to bringing the two sides together. They were extremely nervous about us even holding a meeting with service providers from both sides in the same room. They didn't want to touch that. We pointed out that if they continue to just counsel one person who is suicidal, it doesn't touch the bigger issues in the surrounding communities. We found from the meetings that you couldn't separate the individual from the problems in the surrounding communities."

The team requested further collaboration with the Trust in order to implement suicide prevention and education programs. Last month, however, the doctors received an e-mail that stated that close collaboration with the Trust "at this stage may not be possible" due to "a mixture of distance, different time zones and differences in approaches."

In a statement to the Echo, the Trust would say only: "We greatly appreciate the support and advice we have received from Dr. Fred Bemak and Dr. Bob Coyne and would hope to continue to share information and best practice."

Said McTaggart: "There was a bit of hesitancy because they the doctors were telling them how it was and they didn't like it."

Jackie Hewitt of Farset, a youth and community development program in Belfast, agrees that crossing borders is an important part of developing successful suicide-prevention strategies in Northern Ireland.

"There are too many organizations who are not joined up in their thinking," he said. "In some ways, the Trust does good work, but there's not enough resources coming -- they always seem to cut back services to the most vulnerable members of the community."

McTaggart believes that fundamental education is the best way to tackle suicide.

"I'm a heartbroken father who lost a son at 17 and I wouldn't want that to happen to anyone else," he said.

"I've gone through hell. Philip's mum has gone through hell. My life has changed forever. But I know people whose kids have tied to self harm or commit suicide, and they are going through hell every day. They are afraid to come home in case of what they might find. They are afraid every time their child leaves the house. But they won't talk about it. There's another funeral tomorrow and sometimes I wonder if anybody cares or do they just think "Well they've done it to themselves.

"Why are people so ashamed? Suicide should not be considered a crime. Is it any wonder people won't talk about it if there is something wrong? I wish to God I would have known then what I know now. I never sensed that there was anything wrong with Philip. I didn't understand. Maybe, if he could have talked to me . . . if a young person has a problem parents have to learn to turn back, forget about the golf and ask them what's wrong. A problem may not seem big to us, but it could be big to them."

PIPS co-founder Jo Murphy said she thinks that people are in denial about the extent of the problem.

"Suicide is now a public health issue -- it's everyone's problem," she said. "We need to learn from models in other countries and look at what we're doing wrong."

For McTaggart, the most important thing is to "keep fighting, keep demanding funding and keep looking for answers."

"There are young people dying left right and center and if it was anything else like roads, or drink or anything there'd be a big campaign," he said.

"I don't know, maybe people just don't want the world to know that we're a big crowd of nutcases over here. But having some sort of breakdown doesn't make you a nutcase. It's like breaking your leg -- you need help, and you shouldn't be ashamed to ask for it."