Bringing people from the darkness of despair into the light of hope
Jenny Lee reports on how communities across Northern Ireland are setting their alarms early to join in a global message of solidarity to promote suicide prevention
NINE venues across the north of Ireland will join in a global event to promote suicide prevention and provide a message of hope next month.
Run by suicide and self harm charity Pieta House, Darkness Into Light (DIL) has gone from being a single 'sponsored walk' in Dublin's Phoenix Park in 2007 to a mass movement of people walking in solidarity to tackle the growing problem of suicide. The 5km walk/run starts at 4.15am and is symbolic of the work of Pieta House – bringing people from the darkness of despair into the light of hope.
Last year 130,000 people took part and this is sure to be exceeded this year with DIL events planned in more than 150 locations worldwide – from Athlone to Ottawa, from Brisbane to Hong Kong and from Quebec to Reykjavik.
The northern venues this year are Belleek, Cookstown, Derry, Hannahstown (west Belfast), Lisnaskea, Newtownabbey, Ormeau Park (Belfast), Rostrevor and Strabane.
Pieta House CEO Brian Higgins, who hails from Co Antrim, is encouraging more and more people to participate in DIL to help achieve the charity’s vision of a world where suicide, self-harm and stigma have been replaced by hope, self-care and acceptance.
"I want to ask everybody to wake up and join us in support of families and friends affected by suicide and self-harm," he says.
The northern events are run by both Pieta House and local charity partners, with a focus on signposting those in crisis to any groups who are active in suicide intervention and prevention.
Despite more than £7 million being spent on suicide prevention each year in Northern Ireland, latest figures show there were 318 recorded deaths by suicide here in 2015, an increase of 50 on the previous year.
The number of deaths by suicide in west Belfast more than doubled from 16 in 2014 to 33 in 2015. The impact suicide has had upon so many in west Belfast spurred the local Hannahstown Community Association and Lámh Dhearg CLG to run their own DIL family friendly run this year.
"We wanted to run an event that would help change perception of suicide, self-harm and mental health. We hope to involve many sporting clubs from Belfast – GAA, soccer, boxing and rugby – in spreading a message of hope and let people know help is available. After the walk we will return for refreshment at Lámh Dhearg clubrooms, were there will be opportunity to talk about any concerns," said Jim McCormick, chairman of Hannahstown Community Association.
Proceeds from DIL Hannahstown will help the work of local Suicide Awareness charity, based on the Falls Road. Centre manager, Margaret Walker knows all too well the impact suicide can have, having lost her 20-year-old brother Jim Walker to death by suicide.
"He loved life to the full and his death shocked the whole family and community. He obviously had issues going on that he struggled with and found it difficult to cope with life," recalls Margaret, together with others in her community helped set up the support group in May 2000.
As well as campaigning and lobbying, Suicide Awareness provide support for families bereaved by suicide, crisis support and counselling, therapies and training.
Margaret welcomes the Hannahstown DIL event and says the money raised will provide crucial funding to expand their services and provide opportunities to provide in-house counselling to those in crisis, rather than signposting them to community services across Belfast, which often involve a long waiting list.
"When counselling is in their own community people feel safe. We could put them into a resilience programme and work on confidence and self-esteem and leave them with a tool-kit for life."
She also believes the DIL event will help break down the stigma that still surrounds suicide.
"There is a stigma, especially amongst young men. It's that message that big boys don't cry and suicide prevention is partly about breaking down those barriers. Men have emotions as much as women and it's about letting them know it's OK to cry and feel vulnerable. It's crucial what you do with that vulnerability and that you open up, not close up.
"The majority of our clients are walk-ins so although suicide rates are going up, if services like ours weren't available across Belfast rates would be even higher. When they walk into our centre they feel hopeless and when they leave they have feel they have hope because they aren't on their own. Talking is the key to getting your life back on track.
"I'm hoping this walk is not only going to bring families bereaved by suicide together and also let anyone at risk of suicide know there is support."
She is grateful to their loyal band of volunteers, many whom have availed of Suicide Awareness services in the past, but is encouraging others to provide help.
"Volunteers are the foundation of this organisation – we'd be lost without them. For Darkness into Light we need help with stewarding and making tea. All year round we need help with cleaning, answering phones, bag packing and befriending. We reward our volunteers with a range of free training," adds Margaret, who says those without online access can register for DIL Hannahstown at the Kennedy Centre on Saturday April 22 or at Suicide Awareness Offices on the Falls Road.
Also hosting DIL events for the first year is Rostrevor, where a memorial tree will be planted in Kilbroney Park in memory of the walk and those affected by suicide.
Chairwoman of the newly formed Rostrevor DIL committee Catherine Logan Croston said: “After attending the amazing event last year in the Phoenix Park in Dublin we, as a family, were so moved we wanted to bring it to the communities in the Newry, Mourne and Down area. We have included PIPS Newry and Mourne as the local beneficiary charity, to benefit from 50 per cent of the proceeds of the event, as both [PIPS and Pieta House] help raise awareness of and help those effected by suicide and mental ill health."
Darkness Into Light, supported by Electric Ireland, takes place on Saturday May 6. To register visit darknessintolight.ie. Anyone living in Northern Ireland experiencing distress or despair can call Lifeline free of charge on 0808 808 8000 24 hours a day