The heartbreak of suicide and the shockwaves it sends through not just families, but communities as well, has become an all too familiar experience throughout Ireland, especially in smaller regions like Co Leitrim.
By Leonie McKiernan
According to figures released by the Central Statistics Office, six people took their own lives in 2010 leaving the county with the third highest suicide rate in the country and the highest per captia rate of suicide in Connaught.
The grim statistics also revealed that between 2009 and 2010, the rate of people taking their lives in the county doubled with males accounting for the majority of cases.
These findings are echoed in the 2010 National Office for Suicide Prevention (NOSP) Annual Report which notes that 25 people took their own lives in Co Leitrim between 2004 and 2008, leaving us with the second highest suicide rate in the country during this period.
Worryingly, NOSP also note that rates of self harm, especially for women living in the West of Ireland, are increasing. Add to this the fact that growing numbers of suicide awareness groups and help lines are reporting significant increases in the people calling them for help and it is clear that Ireland is a nation struggling to cope emotionally and mentally as well as financially.
Nationally in 2010, 486 people lost their lives through suicide. Of this 386 were men and 100 were women. However Mary McTernan, spokesperson for STOP (Suicide Organise Teach Prevent) believes the actual figures of those not just taking their own lives, but also self harming, is much higher than this.
“Definitely the numbers of people who are taking their own lives is much higher than the numbers we are seeing acknowledged,” she said adding that this meant that often people did not understand the far reaching impact of suicide and self harming.
She acknowledged that huge strides had been made in attempting to bring the issue of suicide into the public domain and to help remove the stigma of mental health problems, but said that it would take more education, awareness and investment in support services to turn this situation around.
“We’ve come a long way since 1993, when it was a criminal offence and there was huge stigma for families, but there is still a long way to go. We have to work to remove the stigma surrounding this issue, that is crucial,” she said.
IFA National Chairperson for Farm Family and Social Affairs, Margaret Healy agreed it was critical that steps be taken to get rid of the stigma surrounding mental health.
Speaking to the Leitrim Observer, Ms Healy said that a recent Irish Farming Survey on mental health had shown that 42% of respondents would hide a mental health diagnosis from their friends because of the fear of being stigmatised. Even more worryingly 27% of respondents admitted they would delay seeking help for mental health problems like depression because of the stigma.
Noting the marked increase in the number of suicides in men aged over 50, Ms Healy said that the message had to go out there immediately: “Talk, you have to talk about how you are feeling. We have to banish the stigma and encourage people to talk, to acknowledge when they aren’t, mentally, feeling ok.
“Sometimes talking can be the hardest thing for someone suffering depression to do, but by acknowledging their feelings, out loud, to another person they often feel a huge weight has been lifted. There is help out there, but if we aren’t talking then the numbers of people taking their own lives will increase.”
In a bid to encourage people to talk a Farm Rural Helpline is going to be rolled out nationwide in the coming months. The helpline has already been piloted with great success in Cork and Kerry and it is hoped that, having someone to speak to who understands the difficulties and challenges of farming and rural life, will help encourage farmers to address their mental health.
“There is a clear need for a dedicated farming and rural helpline. A phone line where people can speak to someone who will understand what it’s like when your farm is shut down because of disease or you’ve lost livestock or simply because of the isolation of working on a farm,” explains Ms Healy.
The IFA chairperson has been visiting every IFA county membership with a Health Service representative to try and highlight the importance of mental health. She believes that rural areas need to come together as a community to look out for neighbours and to also help combat rural isolation. “We are going to have to re-think how we operate as a community. In a way we’re going to have become a community once again and to look in on our neighbours. To stop and talk to people, to check how they are and to ask them how they are and not just leave them to it,” she said.
“If you think someone you know is suicidal then don’t be afraid to ask them, you’re not going to put notions in their head and you could find that this give them the opportunity to acknowledge they need some help.”
The IFA has recently produced a booklet ‘Dealing with Stress?’ which offers helpful advice for those affected by stress as well as directing people to other organisations who can provide advice and support. See the IFA website for a copy of this publication or pick up a copy in your IFA Regional Office or through any member of the IFA.