Northern Ireland news

Campaign for 'urgent action' on suicide prevention backed by sports and arts stars

(left to right) Boxers Michael Conlan, Carl Frampton and Snow Patrol singer Gary Lightbody are among those who have signed the letter demanding action over the north's suicide rate 
Seanín Graham

AN OPEN letter to health minister Robin Swann appealing for "urgent action" on suicide prevention in Northern Ireland has been signed by leading figures from across the sporting, arts, civic and academic spheres.

Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody, boxers Michael Conlan and Carl Frampton, ex-Ireland rugby international Tommy Bowe, footballer James McClean and Hillsborough campaigner Professor Phil Scraton are among the prominent figures who have lent their names to a campaign demanding more investment in crisis intervention services.

Published in The Irish News and Belfast Telegraph tomorrow, the signatories welcome the restoration of Stormont - but say that the issue of suicide is one that "simply cannot wait for the roll out of action plans and strategies outlined in the New Deal New Approach agreement".

Since Christmas there have been at least five suicides reported in the north Belfast area, including that of an 11-year-boy.

Belfast boxer Michael Conlan, who came up with the idea for the letter, said the deaths had affected him personally and he felt he had to use his "public platform" for some good.

"I was involved in fundraising for a kid, a young boxer, who had died by suicide. I was thinking about it and it really started to get me down," he said.

Read More: Psychiatrists call for social networks to hand over data amid suicide concerns

"I was driving home a few weeks ago and I got quite emotional and thought, I need to do something. I told my partner and I broke down, it's not even personal to me, it's about the people of my city.

"It's just really scary having my two kids growing up in this society. I was put in touch with a lobby group PPR (Participation and the Practice of Rights) and they helped me write the letter..the response has been phenomenal.

"It's all well me winning world title fights and being involved in sports - but in 20 years time if my kids ask me what did I do, I want to say I tried to do everything in my power to fix this problem. This is more important than boxing, it's much bigger than boxing."

Read More: Pupils 'too embarrassed' to turn to teachers for help with mental health

Latest figures show there were 307 deaths by suicide in Northern Ireland in 2018.

The letter acknowledges that while there are "excellent" services working in crisis intervention and prevention, access is key alongside further investment in the existing suicide strategy.

"Suicide is something everybody hopes never comes to their door, but the reality as we've seen is that it can affect any family," it states.

"Yet we know that suicide is preventable, it is not inevitable and can never be the answer. Mental illness is a risk factor in relation to suicide but mental illness does not necessarily lead to suicidal behaviour.

"Access to the right support at the right times can prevent suicide..."

Within days of taking up post as health minister, Mr Swann pledged that mental health, substance misuse and suicide were among the "key priorities" for his department.

The letter urges him to "declare a public health emergency" and "immediately" double the funding allocated to counselling services while ensuring that no-one waits longer than 28 days for a counselling appointment.

"We are all doing our bit to prevent any more deaths by suicide. We urge you to act now," the letter concludes.

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Northern Ireland news