Samaritans chief warns suicide strategy in limbo due to suspension of Stormont
With suicide rates again rising and what SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan last week termed a suicide 'epidemic' in the north west, Samaritans boss Robert Bell tells Noel McAdam about his frustration over the effects of Stormont's suspension and the increasing difficulty of attracting helpline volunteers
A REFRESHED Stormont strategy for tackling suicide is in limbo because of the collapse of devolution, according to the head of the Samaritans in Belfast.
Protect Life 2 has effectively been gathering dust on a shelf for more than a year with no minister to sign off on its implementation. It is an enhanced and more nuanced follow-on from the Protect Life programme launched in 2005/6 as part of a developing initiative against the backdrop of rising suicide rates in Northern Ireland.
Since about 2002 the annual suicide rate in the north has almost doubled – from the average of about 160 deaths a year in the 1990s to more than 300 since.
The total went slightly down to 297 in 2016, figures from the Public Health Agency show, but the latest year for which full statistics are available – 2017 – show it is up again to 305.
Northern Ireland has the highest suicide rate in the UK. The latest three-year rate for 2014/ 16 is 15.9 deaths per 100,000 population.
Samaritans boss Robert Bell says there are many theories, with a lot of detailed research being carried out at Ulster University, about why the north's suicide rate soared in the years after the Good Friday Agreement, which after all brought a relative peace.
"It would seem that a society which is embattled, no matter how odd it seems, brings a sense of certainty and a sense of a purpose to life which is removed and people then feel an increased doubt," he says.
"Without being too simplistic, we are also seeing the transmission of inter-generational stress and since the early 2000s there has been a rise in people taking their own lives, particularly among young people."
But why is this the case?
"Without wanting to get into the territory of 'it's the economy stupid', the facts do show that 'it's deprivation, stupid'," Robert says. This appears to be borne out by the fact that "the higher suicide rates for deprived areas is not just in Northern Ireland".
Robert (52), has been director of Samaritans in Belfast for just over two years. He joined the organisation in 2002 and his extra-curricular skills soon saw him being picked up for committee and organisational work.
None the less he still does his share of picking up the ringing phones in the south Belfast centre – the emotional and suicide support charity's freefone helpline operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
So what made him want to become a Samaritan in the first place?
"I suppose I had a few ups and downs in my own life, like anybody else, but in the mid-1990s I commenced a degree with the Open University, studying psychology, so one sort of dovetailed with the other," he says
His 'day job' is as a data and analysis technician with British Telecom; Robert, who has two grown-up daughters, Gillian (26) and Judith (23), describes the Samaritans role as almost his social life.
"It varies a lot – some weeks it will take just about six or seven hours but other weeks I will be here every evening and all day Saturdays. In a way this is my social life and I don't see that as being a bad thing. I was always a bit of a solitary person."
The organisation is undergoing massive changes. It was once aimed specifically at "the suicidal and despairing" but now hopes to attract callers who, in some cases, just want to talk.
"We want to be the first port of call, rather than a last resort for people. Research commissioned by Samaritans Ireland shows that brand recognition is really high, and there is a huge amount of positive feeling about the organisation," Robert adds.
But while at one point Samaritans volunteers dealt almost entirely with calls from within Northern Ireland, the phone system now operates on an all-UK basis. Callers are as likely to be from Bradford or Birmingham as from Belfast.
"I think [this is] bad from the point of view of the volunteer whose first instinct is to want to help the person down the street and round the corner. That is only natural. But the fact is, the old telephone system we had was highly inefficient, with many callers ending up when they called getting an engaged tone.
"Calls also doubled when it was made into a freefone system and we needed to make sure we had the capacity to deal with that."
However, recruitment into the organisation is becoming more difficult. Robert again pinpoints why.
"Joining the Samaritans involves a considerable time commitment, not just in the training which we provide but then in the contribution people are expected to make. And we would not have that any other way.
"With other voluntary organisations, people are able to join and become active – involved in fundraising, for example, or cleaning up a river bed – quite quickly. My impression in Belfast is that we are getting less young people coming forward but an improvement in the spread of ages," he says.
Robert is also a member of the implementation group for Protect Life 2 and is frustrated that it is effectively mothballed by the current political paralysis.
"The budget lines have all been agreed and the parameters set. It is all sitting there, ready to go. The first Protect Life programme ran its course and then was being revised and reviewed with a number of consultations.
"But without a minister it cannot be signed off on. Yet an awful lot of effort has gone on, and a good part of it aimed at people already working with suicide in the system, whether people involved in mental health or GPs."
He is convinced that if the high suicide rates in north and west Belfast, with Derry/ Strabane following a fairly close second, were happening anywhere else in the UK, more would be being done.
"It annoys me. It's what I call the weather-forecasting syndrome. The national forecaster says its a sunny day in London, so they draw a veil over the clouds in Scotland or here.
"We have a strategy sitting ready and able to go – although not everyone would agree about every single part of it – yet we are not seeing anything effective being achieved on the ground."
:: To contact Samaritans freefone 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org (Northern Ireland and Britain) / email@example.com (Republic).