Mind Matters: Dr Paul Gaffney on why politicians need to take a proactive approach to suicide prevention

In the wake of this year's Word Mental Health Day and World Suicide Prevention Day, senior clinical psychologist Dr Paul Gaffney explains why politicians need to take a proactive approach to suicide prevention

Paul Gaffney

WE recently marked Word Mental Health Day on October 10, following on from World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10.

As often happens at this time of year, I was asked to attend a local coffee morning and invited to speak about my experiences as a Clinical Psychologist and offer people some advice on looking after their own mental health.

Inevitably, these conversations lead on to the issue of suicide.

As I prepared some thoughts for the talk, I reflected on how despite the resourcing of strategies developed on both sides of the border, suicide rates remain very high, with the Northern Ireland rates rising significantly in 2015.

I have often questioned the notion that suicide prevention was solely the remit of mental health services, with the assumption of a link between the numbers of people deciding to end their lives and the efficacy of mental health services.

The problem is that attempting suicide or developing debilitating mental health conditions, normally comes the end of a spiral of events, not at the beginning.

Even if we had a mental health professional available to everyone 24/7, people will probably still take their own lives.

To better understand why people kill themselves, and tragically every case is different, we must consider social and economic issues alongside the particular issues of the individual person.

For example, Professor Ella Arensman recently presented a study on 300 consecutive deaths by suicide in the Cork area during the economic downturn, suggesting that around 30 per cent of the deaths could be attributable to the recession.

Of this predominantly male sample, 33 per cent were unemployed and 42 per cent had worked in construction and related areas.

North of the border, 1972 is considered to have been with worst year of the Troubles, with almost 500 people killed and 5,000 injured.

The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency report that there were 67 reported deaths by suicide in 1972, compared with 278 deaths by suicide 30 years later in 2012.

Even allowing for demographic changes in the intervening time period, the Troubles appear to have had some impact on these rates.

So, in my talk this year, alongside the individual advice I addressed the politicians present and spoke about trying something different, shown in other parts of the world to be effective in addressing suicide rates.

What about a type of 'national wellbeing service' where 16 to 19 year olds must be in full time education or paid training courses to lessen the possibility of becoming disenfranchised, with no prospects?

What about comprehensively targeting childhood disadvantage, maltreatment and abuse?

We know that when people experience more than six adverse childhood experiences, they are more than 30 times more likely to attempt suicide.

What about the major stresses of becoming a parent for the first time or losing your job?

Without significant financial, practical and emotional support, these situations can be overwhelming.

We need to focus not only on preventing deaths, but on helping everyone have the opportunity of a life worth living.

:: Dr Paul Gaffney is a senior clinical psychologist.

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