Sunday, August 8, 2004
Northern Ireland's suicide tragedy
The way to prevent vulnerable young people from taking their own lives could be as simple as parents asking their children to talk through their problems, says the father of a teenager who died of suicide.
Philip McTaggart's son, also called Philip, killed himself last April and his father constantly asks himself if he missed something in his behaviour that could have alerted him to his state of mind.
Seventeen-year-old Philip was from north Belfast, which has one of the highest suicide rates in a province that is faced with a suicide crisis.
The most recent figures (for 2001) show the suicide rate in Northern Ireland to be 26 deaths per 100,000 of the population, compared with a UK-wide figure of 15 per 100,000.
Earlier this year, up to 12 suicides were reported in north Belfast, mainly among young people, centring on the Catholic Ardoyne area.
Mr McTaggart is still trying to come to terms with the tragedy and asks himself every day what went wrong, although he knows the only person with the answers has taken them with him to the grave.
He said: "There are so many questions.
"I haven't had any closure and that's so hard.
"Every single day I ask the same question and cry.
"I will be crying until the day I die.
"I think about Philip constantly and I ask 'what did I miss' and 'why did he do it'?"
But he says he has learned a lot over the past year.
He said: "As a parent, listening to young people, no matter how trivial it may seem, is so important.
"We should sit them down and ask them to explain their problems to us.
"A young person's problems to an adult may seem trivial, but to them it's a major problem.
"We think they will get over it, but as parents we need to try to help them work it out and go and get help and advice if they need it.
"There is also no shame in turning round to them and saying that we love them, even if they are 16 or 17."
Mr McTaggart has helped set up the Public Initiative to Prevent Suicide and Self Harm (Pips) - a project dedicated to the memory of his son, who was nicknamed Pip by his friends.
The organisation aims to help young people contemplating suicide or self harm, to create greater awareness of services available to those considering suicide and to give support to families who have lost a loved one.
Mr McTaggart is now on the team of volunteer counsellors and although he comes from a nationalist background, often finds himself face-to-face with Protestant families who have been bereaved in tragic circumstances.
This voluntary work has involved crossing the divide to the mainly Protestant Shankill Road.
Last Christmas, an event was held in Belfast for the families of those who had taken their own lives and although organisers expected about 50 people to attend, more than 300 people turned up.
There was a poignant moment for Philip.
He said: "Me and a woman from the Shankill Road planted a tree together.
"So we are breaking down barriers.
"At the Christmas festival, no-one was turning round and asking 'are you a Catholic or a Protestant'?"
Last week, Pips organised a "celebration of life" service for bereaved families.
"One young lad who had tried to take his life got up and read a poem at the festival, called 'one small gesture'.
"And it's true, one small gesture can save a life."
He believes that in the short time Pips has been operating, it have saved many lives.
The volunteer counsellors are always on hand to give advice to a young person who needs help.
He said: "I have had parents phoning me at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning about a loved one because they don't know what to do with them.
"We can't prevent every single death, but at least we are trying to turn round and help."
It is hard to pinpoint the reasons behind the high suicide rate in Belfast.
Psychologists link suicide to pressures such as stress and depression, relationship break-ups and bullying.
But it is a very personal issue and so-called suicide notes do not always give a full explanation.
But why should there be such a suicide crisis in Northern Ireland?
Pips counsellor Joe Barnes has his own ideas.
Although speculative, they have huge resonance.
He said: "It may have something to do with the last 30 years of conflict.
"During the conflict, communities bonded together much more so than they would otherwise.
"Now we are coming out of conflict, society is opening up much more and individuals are being exposed to other pressures."
He also points to social hardship and a person's state of mind as important factors.
He is concerned that suicide is often brushed under the carpet and people are afraid to talk about it, which leaves families feeling isolated.
Mr Barnes said: "It is never talked about because there is a stigma of disapproval attached to suicide."
Pips has set up a family support group, which organises meetings for bereaved relatives.
It also has counsellors, like Mr McTaggart, who can talk to anxious young people contemplating suicide or relatives struggling to deal with a loved one's death.
Pips is also trying to set up a 24-hour helpline.
Mr Barnes said: "In the case of bereaved families, we put people in touch with others who have been through the same experience."
This involves linking them up with people like Mr McTaggart.
For professional counsellors like Mr Barnes, in the case of a distressed young person considering suicide, the aim is to try to put things into perspective.
Mr Barnes said: "You try to make them understand that where they're at, at the moment, is one point on a continuum and that in a few years time, they will look back on it and see that it was one point on that continuum.
Mr McTaggart thinks schools need to over-ride the taboo of suicide and discuss the issue more openly.
He said: "Pips is asking for every school to have a resident counsellor or someone they can go to talk to in confidence."
Such simple measures may help to reduce the risk of suicide in young people.
One life saved is one less family left grieving and trying to make sense of a situation where questions outnumber answers.
World suicide prevention day is on Friday 10 September.