Plea to politicians and decision-makers to act urgently on mental health

By James Gould

“I walked calmly to the spot – it was easy, I’d been there four times already this week… I looked down at the scummy liquid below and decided I really, really was going to jump this time …

The haunting words of Tommy (not his real name) as he prepared to take his own life almost a year to the day, alone and in unimaginable despair in a deserted Co Armagh town.

“I didn’t do it in the end,” he told me.

“I have no idea why, maybe I lost my nerve again,” he said. “I’d convinced myself no-one would miss me. The pressures had just gotten too much.”

Tommy is one of the ‘lucky’ ones, if that is not being too glib.

He did not become yet another all-too-familiar grim statistic in Northern Ireland’s growing list of deaths by suicide.

Tommy has now reconciled himself with the family he believed had abandoned him in his darkest hour. He has just turned 20 and started a new job – he is, in his words, “living life to the full again.”

Others are not so fortunate, however.

Latest figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency show that between August 2013 and August 2016, 909 deaths were registered as suicides.

In 2015 there were 318 deaths, the highest on record. It was also the highest rate per head of the population in the entire UK.

This figure never came down, in 2018 there was also a high number standing at 307 deaths.

Furthermore, over three quarters of deaths registered as suicides in the past three years have been male – with nearly a third of them under the age of 30.

The reports for 2019 and 2020 are awaiting completion.

Even for Northern Ireland with its long, complex and troubled history, the facts on what is now one of our biggest killers, are shocking and cast a long, dark shadow from one end of the province to the other.

Celebrity psychologist Dr Arthur Cassidy, who heads the Yellow Ribbon suicide prevention charity in Portadown, based in the same county where Tommy intended ending his life, says the number of deaths are simply “unacceptable”.

He is calling for the problem to be tackled head on by both Northern Ireland’s politicians and the health service decision makers.

Dr Cassidy, an expert on behaviour and personality issues who has given advice to celebrities taking part in top reality TV shows such as Big Brother, believes mental health services are “ridiculously” under-resourced in Northern Ireland.

And he says the issue needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

“The situation in Northern Ireland is appalling,” Dr Cassidy said. “

“Something really needs to be done – suicide can be preventable.”

He says there are a number of gaps in the prevention services that need plugged as quickly as possible.

However, at the same time, he also believes decision-maker mind-sets need to change.

“I feel that we must take vital steps to address this situation,” he said.

“First we must engage with Government to make it mandatory that all schoolchildren and teenagers up to the age of 18 are required to undertake properly designed courses to strengthen and develop emotional resilience and coping strategies as part of the academic curriculum. 

“Children ought to be take modular courses in death education so as they understand the nature and context of high risk behaviours. I see far too many kids abusing solvents after having been to counselling. “

Dr Cassidy says it is not all about pouring money into change.

“The Protect Life strategy (drawn up by the Department of Health in NI) requires a major overhaul,” he said.  “I’m not convinced that it is all due to lack of funding.

“Perhaps funds might be saved if suicide prevention charities were operated totally by volunteers as we do.  

 “There is an over-dependency on counselling services as the one stop shop. With the Governments Lifeline in full operation they are stretched to breaking point, but there are many other strategic approaches never discussed by media that require attention.  In order to support the statutory sector we need to create a society where suicide prevention agencies are established after proper professional training by the universities and run in total by qualified volunteers”

While, according to NISRA figures, young men, particularly living in north Belfast are vulnerable to suicide, Dr Cassidy believes there is much wider problematic age demographic.

He revealed that over the past year he has been dealing with a number of cases involving both young children and middle-aged men and women.

Dr Cassidy believes there are number of reasons why people decide to take their own lives.

“I have seen a small rise in suicidal ideation among middle age men, all of whom were married or in a long term relationship,” he said

“The suicidal depression in most of these cases were related to medical problems such as chronic arthritis, cancer or sleep apnoea.

“These men were between the ages of 35 to 55 approximately.  Other co morbid causes relate to poor coping strategies and low emotional resilience.

“In the same two-year period I have also seen a small number of school-children and teenagers with their parents between the ages of 12 and 18 presenting with anxiety, stress and chronic depression, due mainly to online trolls, cyberbullying and online addiction to celebrity worship. Insomnia is also associated with these psychological conditions.”

If you have been affected by suicide or any of the issues talked about in this piece contact Samaritans on  116 123