There can be no acceptable level of suicide in north says Co Down-based charity

Ahead of World Suicide Prevention Day next week, Noel McAdam talks to the secretary of a Co Down charity frustrated by official inaction in the face of rising rates in the north and convinced that there can be no 'acceptable level' of suicide

People can be trained to identify those at risk of suicide and what to do to keep them safe, says Pat McGreevy of Suicide Down to Zero
Noel McAdam

FOR every road accident death in Northern Ireland, there are four suicides. Yet while there are multi-million-pound campaigns to continually combat the level of traffic fatalities – which have been going down year on year from 2014 – there is no similar effort to tackle the problem of people taking their own lives.

In fact, as The Irish News revealed last month, an improved programme aiming to deal with the growing suicide numbers is gathering dust on a Stormont shelf because the lack of a minister means it cannot be implemented.

And, ahead of World Suicide Prevention Day on Monday, one Northern Ireland group is warning against what it calls the drift towards "an acceptable level of suicides".

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Downpatrick-based Suicide Down to Zero believes the goal of cross-departmental government policy should be – as with road traffic deaths – to reduce the level to nil. The charity says the only alternative is learning to live with an annual suicide rate of around 300.

In the last full January to December period there were 63 road deaths – down from 79 four years ago – compared to just over 300 suicides, as figures obtained by The Irish News last month confirmed.

Suicide Down to Zero secretary Pat McGreevy said the group's plan was not meant as a criticism of any programme which has gone before, or of any individuals.

"There is no sense that 'suicide down to zero' means that suicide shouldn't have happened, and there is no blame in any sense. But are the public enabled to talk openly and directly about suicide in general or do certain myths get in the way? And are they encouraged to make a direct contribution to suicide prevention?"

Mr McGreevy continued: "People can be trained to identify people at risk of suicide and what to do to keep them safe. They can also learn how and why support for people who have survived a suicide attempt, or the loss of a loved one to suicide, is so important."

Among the many myths – as identified by the World Health Organisation – which surround suicide is that talking about it is generally a bad idea and can be interpreted as encouragement, and that individuals who talk about suicide do not really intend to 'do it', Mr McGreevy said.

In a presentation to the Suicide Strategy's Implementation Group to update its 'Protect Life' blueprint, the group said the current approach of "doing the same things and hoping for a different outcome" needs to be changed.

"The responsibility for suicide prevention should rest in the Executive Office and thereby the potential for cross-departmental co-operation will be enhanced," it said.

"Excellent models of suicide-prevention training have been here in Northern Ireland but they are not being systematically utilised to achieve maximum impact.

"The overall trend in suicide deaths here is upward. To date it is not clear which suicide prevention approaches are effective and need to continue and which are not and should be discontinued.

"We believe that the ambition for suicide deaths should be zero. Some people have said that this is unrealistic, but we believe it is an aspiration, a goal worth striving for.

"The alternative is to continue with an annual suicide death toll in Northern Ireland of around 300. This suggests that the current efforts can accommodate an 'acceptable level of suicide'."

Every suicide death is estimated to cost £1.7 million in losses to the economy, according to Suicide Down to Zero.

"This includes intangible costs: the loss of life to the individual and the pain and suffering of relatives, as well as lost output, both waged and unwaged, police time and the cost of the funeral," Mr McGreevy explained.

"I have seen other work that would include pre-death use of health services by the person and post-death use of health services by family and loved ones bereaved by the suicide.

"These family members – survivors, really – can often by away from work for a considerable time after the death."

According to Suicide Down to Zero: "If we take that figure and multiply it by the number of recorded deaths in 2016 the total loss is over £503 million in that year alone. This is set against a suicide prevention spend of just £7.5 million.

"We need to invest more resources and try new approaches if we are really serious about saving lives. It’s clear then that saving lives saves money."

:: See


Myth: Only people with mental disorders are suicidal.

Fact: Suicidal behaviour indicates deep unhappiness but not necessarily mental disorder. Many people living with mental disorders are not affected by suicidal behaviour, and not all people who take their own lives have a mental disorder.

Myth: Someone who is suicidal is determined to die.

Fact: On the contrary, suicidal people are often ambivalent about living or dying. Someone may act impulsively (by taking substances) and die a few days later, even though they would have liked to live on. Access to emotional support at the right time can prevent suicide.

Myth: People who talk about suicide do not mean to do it.

Fact: People who talk about suicide may be reaching out for help or support. A significant number of people contemplating suicide are experiencing anxiety, depression and hopelessness and may feel that there is no other option.

(Source: Preventing suicide, A global imperative: Myths, published by the WHO)

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