Mental health education and bereavement support is key to suicide prevention
Jenny Lee reports on suicide prevention and bereavement support, speaking Irish author and social activist Christie Kenneally
"EACH life lost to suicide is a tragic loss of opportunity and potential and each life lost is one life too many". These were the words of Health Minister Michelle O'Neill at the recent launch of a consultation for Protect Life 2, a suicide prevention strategy for Northern Ireland.
Suicide rates and levels of mental illness in Northern Ireland are among the highest in the UK, with 318 suicides recorded last year alone, a 19 per cent increase from 2014.
The feelings of loss, sadness and loneliness experienced after any death of a loved one are often magnified in suicide survivors by feelings of guilt, confusion, rejection, shame, anger and the effects of stigma and trauma.
One regional group led by and for those bereaved by suicide, Families Voices Forum, welcome consultation as they believe families and friends who live with the reality of suicide every day need to be at the heart of the strategy.
"It is important that the Protect Life 2 Strategy supports families to receive appropriate support at the right time and in the manner that suits them, when they need it," says Claire Curran, Chairperson of the Forum.
"Families and carers should be heard and their experiences listened to during all stages of their journeys in supporting a loved one."
Set up in 2005 to champion the right of those bereaved by suicide to have timely access to professional levels of care and support, the Forum will host a free half-day information event in Dungannon this weekend.
The event provides a welcome opportunity to help the bereaved and includes workshops on how our physical health affects our emotional health, work by local artists reflecting on their own journey of recovery through mental health trauma, personal stories of surviving bereavement by suicide, information on finding support in your local community and self-care techniques that can help personal healing occur and resilience grow.
Christie Kenneally, Irish author and social activist in the field of suicide and bereavement, will be the keynote speaker for the free information day in Dungannon.
Author of books including, Life After Loss: How to Help, Kenneally dedicated a large part of his life to studying bereavement after working as a chaplain in a hospice 40 years ago.
"At that time I discovered we took terrific care of the people in the beds, but very little care of people who came to visit them."
In the past 15 years, he has moved into the area of suicide, which he describes as "a modern plague".
Although Kenneally welcomes the various voluntary sector bereavement charities that now exists, he believes community spirit and neighbourly love play an invaluable role in helping the bereaved.
"A death by suicide is not any worse than other bereavement – it's just different. The bereaved may feel some level of shame and there is the whole religious pressure people come under, as traditionally we were taught that a suicide would not be entered into heaven.
"There is a lot of fear in a community when it comes to suicide and a fear of saying the wrong thing, but the fact you turn up to say anything that matters so much to the bereaved.
"Those who are close to you before, ideally should be the ones you are close to you after. I would always appeal to the inner circle to do what they always did and call that little bit more often to illicit how they are and give them a chance to talk."
There are of course many other practical steps people can take to help families after bereavement, from taking children to school in the morning to bringing the bereaved shopping or to a support group.
"One lady said her neighbour always managed to bake too much bread at the weekends. I really loved that," says Kenneally.
His advice to the bereaved who don't see any hope at the end of the tunnel is not to isolate themselves.
"You need to find a friend, one person, with whom you can be real and say 'I'm not great today' instead of suffering in silence and saying 'I'm grand, life goes on'.
"Also find a reason for staying alive – perhaps it's grandchildren, or a bereavement support group. Any group is like a crutch, you won't need the crutch for the rest of your life.
"Over the years I've seen the heartbroken become heroes simply by putting a foot out of bed in the morning. And in time I've seen people give enormous help to others simply because they have gone through it and their compassion was such that they could make room in themselves for someone else's pain."
Kenneally welcomes the Protect Life 2 consultation on suicide prevention and would like an all-Ireland "joined-up" strategy on suicide prevention with mental health education an integral component of it.
"We have to get into schools early and train our children's minds, heart and spirit with resilience so when tough times come they can deal with it in a healthy way."
Only last month, a Dungannon teenager who excelled in both the classroom and sports field was lost to suicide. Kenneally warns that often it is the people who are perceived as popular that struggle with mental health.
"What can happen is that young people can be encouraged to keep up face and support the role rather than be real.
"Who does the football star turn to and say 'I have periods of depression or I cut myself once or twice'? You can become the prisoner of your popularity.
"There is a perception depression is something to hide. It is very important to say to kids that having a mental health issue is like having a headache – it's as common as that.
"It's not something to hidden or be ashamed of."
With research showing that men are three times more likely to die by suicide than women, Kenneally also highlights the importance of men being encouraged to show their emotions.
"Society almost expects men to have had their tear ducts removed at birth. Young bereaved boys are being told to 'man up' and support their mothers. The kid has to grieve for his daddy so that he can becoming a whole and compassionate man."
:: The Families Voices Forum regional half-day event will be held at The Junction, Dungannon on October 14 at 9.30am. It is open to
anyone who has been affected by suicide. RSVP to Lisa at firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 028 7161 1384.
:: Anyone who is in distress or despair can contact the Lifeline Helpline on 0808 808 8000.
:: The Protect Life 2 consultation can be accessed at https://www.health-ni.gov.uk/consultations/protect-life-2-strategy-suicide-prevention-north-ireland and will be open until November 4.