Leona O'Neill: Time to talk about teenage depression
Leona speaks to a mother who lost her son to teen suicide and ponders what it will take to make discussing anxiety, depression and other mental health issues as normal as talking about cold and flu
I SPENT last Saturday with a mother who lost her 17-year-old son to suicide. Lorraine Curran's son Mark took his own life in 2005, the year my own son was born. As we were celebrating our son's arrival into the world, Lorraine was mourning the loss of her much-loved boy.
Lorraine helps organise a football tournament in Derry every year in memory of Mark and his friend Conor Carlyle, who took his life two years after his best friend died.
This year, the 49-year-old mum wanted to do something to highlight the issue of suicide and asked people in the city to donate shoes so she could fashion a poignant tribute from them.
When I arrived up at the football pitch that day, I saw the line of shoes start. They wound up the path and in along the touchline. Each pair of shoes, laid out so perfectly, represented one life lost to suicide since Lorraine's son Mark died.
I walked around the touchline taking each one in, thinking on each life that was gone. Some of the shoes had been donated by the families of those lost, so it was their actual shoes that they had walked this earth in.
There were 444 pairs of shoes there, representing teenagers, mothers, fathers, uncles, brothers, sisters, aunts, sons and daughters who could not cope in this world. It was as startling as it was heartbreaking to see them laid out there.
I spoke with Lorraine, who is still hurting from the loss of her "football mad" child. She said she wanted to do something in an arena that many boys feel comfortable – the football pitch – that might make them stop and think, or talk to one another, or help someone who is struggling.
She wants the conversation to start. She wants something done about the epidemic of suicide that is blighting our communities and is hitting young men particularly hard.
Our boys, big and small, find it hard to talk their feelings. They are told from a young age by society that they have to be tough, that 'boys don't cry. They are told to 'man up' or 'take it like a man'.
Many of them feel that by talking about their feelings or admitting they are struggling, it somehow makes them appear weak. Of course it doesn't, but the teenage mind in particular conjures up such notions.
We need to be teaching our children that talking about feelings, emotions and struggles is as natural an act as brushing their teeth.
We need to smash the taboo about mental health. We need to get even our primary school children talking about mental health in a way that they talk about physical health.
We need to make discussing anxiety and depression as normal a thing as talking about a cold or a flu for them. We need them to know that it's OK not to be OK and that there is help out there and that they will get better.
Northern Ireland has a serious problem with mental health. I can't pretend to have all the answers. I would imagine much of the problem could be down to our very unique post-conflict situation.
I would imagine that some of it is due to the distinct lack of hope, jobs, investment, normality that we have here. Many of these young men hail from socially deprived areas.
I imagine the high numbers of people taking their own lives is because of a lack of investment in our mental health services. All of these problems sit at the feet of our politicians as they continue to stall Stormont.
They cannot continue to kick the problem down the road while they bicker for another two years. Too many of our young people have been lost. Mark and his friend Conor had their whole lives in front of them, as did the 444 people who could have been standing in those shoes and living their lives.
Now is the time to act and save lives.