Dublin: Culture Of Self-Harm & Suicide Must Be Challenged Within Families And Communities

29 Jan

De-stigmatising the idea of seeking help early is vital for people with mental health problems

THE MOOD may have lifted among Fianna Fáilers, delighted with their old but new broom, Micheál Martin. However, there are many worrying signs that there is a deeper, more persistent gloom far more serious than political woes blighting many people’s existence.

Acting coroner Brian Mahon, prompted by the fact that he had to deal recently with five cases in Offaly, spoke about suicide being rampant, particularly among young males. Prof Jim Lucey of St Patrick’s hospital spoke of a 25 per cent increase in suicide last year. There is also a new type of person at risk – the driven male entrepreneur. Lucey said that we are seeing the “terribly morbid outcome of a misplaced sense of responsibility”, and men “condemning themselves to death” because of financial failure.

As a teacher, I know teenagers best and I am profoundly worried about trends in their culture. It is important to state again that the majority of teenagers navigate the sometimes troubled waters of adolescence with relative ease. However, for a minority of teenagers, the risks have increased exponentially, even for children from so-called good families, where there are strong and loving relationships.

I have no desire to worry parents who are already worried enough. The majority of parents are doing their very best but often feel overwhelmed and helpless in the face of wider cultural trends. Acts that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago are entering the “menu of options” for young people.

I am terribly afraid that by talking more and more about suicide (as I do myself in this column) we may have contributed inadvertently to de-stigmatising the option of death by suicide. We have not been successful enough in de-stigmatising seeking help, or more importantly, in creating a culture where fewer people feel driven to desperate acts.

I am convinced there is a significant copycat effect happening among young people. It is as if knowing that someone in your circle has engaged in self-harm, makes such choices more acceptable, instead of triggering a desire to look for help. Imagine if instead the behaviour being copied by people in distress was successfully seeking and availing of readily accessible help.

Why is a significant minority of young people so unhappy? Or rather, since teenagers have probably always been unhappy, why are they choosing such drastic options to manage their distress? There may be clues in their culture. People born after 1985 are described as Generation Y. The theory is that an age cohort has similar characteristics. All generalisations about a group are flawed, but some of them ring true.

There is a song in the primary school religious education programme which perhaps unwittingly sums up a key theme of this generation. It is called Circle of Friends . This generation finds meaning in life in a circle of friends, which also includes family.

This generation is not rebelling against parents, or indeed, anything much. Some acerbic commentators go so far as to say that they are the most over-parented generation ever, with parents anxiously involved in and supervising every aspect of their lives. They are also the technological generation, who cannot imagine a world without instant communication. This means that events become magnified and dramatic very rapidly, in the multiple feedback channels of the mobile phone and internet.

They are also more likely to have grown up in an atmosphere where faith is not a key part of their lives. Comedian Tommy Tiernan used a memorable phrase describing faith in his childhood as like a television channel that was never turned on, unused and unmissed.

Obviously, someone with my preoccupations would be concerned by this, but it is a concern for everyone, because it is not just the lack of faith that is significant, but of any overarching narrative outside friends and family. When the Circle of Friends breaks down, or worse, you never make it in, these kids feel defenceless and devastated. The gentle and sensitive feel this the most deeply.

Again, it is important to emphasise that most young people learn the skills to cope and get through this. But it leaves a minority uniquely vulnerable. The tight, cosy world they inhabit does not lend itself to developing skills to learn to deal with failure. Worse, small humiliations enter the echo chamber of the internet in a devastating way.

These young people have been praised from birth. Paradoxically, it seems to have had the unwanted consequence of making it very difficult to deal with any failure.

Perhaps it is the same problem with the highly driven entrepreneurs who are taking their own lives. They invested themselves entirely in financial success, and consumed with guilt for not being able to look after employees or family, they look to the most drastic way out of all.

There has been a welter of responses to the suicide crisis, and voluntary organisations have multiplied in recent times, many of them providing invaluable support. Aware, for example, just launched online support which is relevant to the technological generation.

However, the fact there are up to 500 groups inevitably leads both to overlap and some gaps in services. Minister of State John Moloney has proposed an audit and regulatory framework, which can only be valuable. The call has been made for some time by responsible organisations.

But it needs to go wider, to an audit of how all public monies are being spent in suicide prevention. There have been some modest achievements recently, including some beds for children and adolescents. However, at the same time cutbacks in our mental health services are being made without any real thought to the consequences, while other services of unproven value are being maintained.

It is vital that laudable attempts to de-stigmatise mental health problems do not have the unintended consequence of adding self-harm and suicide to a “menu of options”. We need to focus our collective energies on challenging the culture, on de-stigmatising the idea of seeking help as early as possible, and on provision of readily accessible services. The vast majority of people treated for depression will recover. We have to get that message out.

Rural suicide: ‘If we don’t talk, people won’t know there is help out there’ | 29/01/2011

www.console.ie & www.spunout.ie & www.letsomeoneknow.ie & www.teenline.ie & www.seniorhelpline.ie & www.3ts.ie

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