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Saturday 1 November 2014

Why don't we talk more about suicide?

Last week, I followed a random conversation online about suicide. One party to this chat felt that there was "too much" discussion of suicide in the media. It was too negative, they said. Too much of a downer, they explained. In that same week, the Dutch parents of a 20-year-old man who took his own life decided to publish his suicide note.

The note, which was brief, was no less heartbreaking. "Dear Mum and Dad, all my life I have been ridiculed, abused, bullied and excluded. You guys are fantastic. I hope you're not angry." Tim Ribberink's final words appeared -- with his parents' permission -- alongside his death notice in a Dutch newspaper.

His family's motivation was, no doubt, an attempt to stop the stigma around suicide and tell other young people that there are other options than the one their son chose.

There was a minor outcry at their decision, but overwhelmingly, they received huge support. How can pointing out the reality -- that name-calling, or personal jibes can lead to suicide -- be a bad thing? The story rippled around the world, as did that of Felicia Garcia, a Staten Island teenager who threw herself in front of a train after rumours about her behaviour at a party went viral.

Issue

Without the internet and social media, we wouldn't have heard about Tim or Felicia. Perhaps because they seem so far away geographically, it makes us feel that their stories shouldn't interest us, but they are part of the global issue of youth suicide.

Closer to home, Ireland has had its own high profile cases, like those of Ciara Pugsley and Erin Gallagher, who were taunted verbally and virtually. In the end, neither could withstand the abuse and ended their lives. Last week, on the Pat Kenny Show, Mayor of Donegal Frank McBrearty said that the media should take a "step back on suicide".

McBrearty -- rightly -- was concerned about speculation-driven articles appearing in print. What he wasn't saying -- and this is crucial -- is that the media should stop writing and reporting on suicide.

No form of bereavement leaves behind as much incomprehension, or as many questions, as suicide. In addition to grief, shock and loss, there is a frantic need to understand, to find out why.

Talking about suicide is not about normalising it, but it does help us to ease the horror it bequeaths to those left behind.

Perhaps we're all just a little shaken by a run of cases, and of the sheer youth involved. The tragic death of Cormac Clare compounded this.

The 18-year-old's death did not involve bullying but unbeknownst to the people who knew and loved Cormac, he was struggling.

In the aftermath of his suicide, one of his friends wrote: "Please talk to someone, anyone, if you are hurt, or feel like everything is becoming too much and you can't cope anymore. Don't suffer in silence. Don't let it build up."

With suicide, this is often the crux. Communication shuts down, and the channels that link us to others constrict.

For anyone who distances themselves from others while experiencing depression or trauma, the risk of isolation can be dangerous.

We are still only a couple of decades from an era when suicide was considered a crime (and a person who survived an attempt could be imprisoned), which explains the lingering shame and judgment surrounding it.

Should we stop talking about it? Not at all. To censor the discussion on suicide would be a step towards stigmatising victims and their families.

The only chance society has of reducing the number of cases (in the region of 525 per year) is to be open about it.

Newspapers, radio and television have a duty to keep talking about suicide, but only about the facts.

As we've seen in recent weeks, speculation is unhelpful, and second-guessing someone's motivation solves nothing.

There are almost daily reports from Iraq and Afghanistan about suicide bombings. Despite the frequency of these attacks, we barely bat a collective eyelid at the use of the word 'suicide' in these headlines.

Why then, when people closer to home -- especially teenagers -- end their lives, should we criticise media coverage? A new organisation, 3Ts, recently produced a video calling on the Government to establish a suicide prevention authority.

It urges people to sign a petition asking the Government to set one up. This is about having a conversation that should never come to a halt.

Awareness and communication are the tools to instruct people that there are other options, and that there is help available.

All we have to do is look at the work of organisations like 3Ts, Console or Pieta House and it's clear that we cannot talk about suicide enough.

Sinead Gleeson is the editor of Silver Threads of Hope, a short story anthology in aid of CONSOLE.

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