Opinion

Chris Donnelly: Mental health in our schools - we'll never know why it seemed too much for Ciaran

Chris Donnelly

Chris Donnelly

Chris is a political commentator with a keen eye for sport. He is principal of a Belfast primary school.

Schools that were able to offer counselling provision are no longer in a position to do so as the devastating budgetary cuts hit hard across the education sector
Schools that were able to offer counselling provision are no longer in a position to do so as the devastating budgetary cuts hit hard across the education sector Schools that were able to offer counselling provision are no longer in a position to do so as the devastating budgetary cuts hit hard across the education sector

The phone on the bed told his mother something wasn’t right. Ciaran always had it in his hand.

She had been talking to her son earlier and expected to find him at home upon her return. When she couldn’t find him, she went out searching the streets, phoning his friends in the hope that her sense of foreboding was misplaced.

Several hours passed without success, before she returned home to discover the awful truth.

More than a dozen teenagers squatted in his living room, just to be close whilst he lay in the coffin, and the constant stream of newly arriving adolescents betrayed Ciaran’s popularity.

For most, it was their first experience of bereavement, and the weight of grief was proving too much to bear.

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Many took to TikTok to share their emotions and to pay tribute to their cherished friend in a way that he, they and their peers could relate.

As ever, innocence was an unintended casualty of the life that ended early, the fragility of our precious existence once again revealed.

Ciaran was renowned for the twinkle in his eye. He would not walk past without saying hello to staff or fellow pupils of all ages. How many 13-year-olds would buy a dinner lady a birthday card after overhearing that her big day was approaching?

In the couple of years since he had left my school, proudly wearing the Class of 2021 leavers’ sweatshirt, he had shot up in height, with the facial hair confirming that puberty had indeed arrived.

He kept his hair long, washing it frequently and faithfully visiting the barbers twice monthly to keep it just right. He took pride in his appearance.

Ciaran’s affable nature meant when he got himself into trouble invariably he’d get off easily. A few words of encouragement after the initial stern rebuke, all received with his trademark puppy dog eyes and rarely with any dissent, and he was away again.

We’ll never know why, a moment crystallised when it all seemed to be too much, yet living with the devastating consequences of that moment will be a heavy cross to bear forever for those who loved him most.

One of Ciaran’s happiest memories of his final year of primary school was a fishing trip to Dromore enjoyed with his classmates, an annual tradition since Covid.

Angling First is a charity set up by Taughmonagh native Mark McGivern. Every year, he invites scores of school-based groups from working-class areas of Belfast to spend the day doing something many may otherwise never experience. Mark’s charity is now under threat due to the financial situation, with children set to lose out.

Rates of suicide in Northern Ireland are higher than in equivalent regions of Great Britain. More than two-thirds of the victims are males and, unsurprisingly, the rates of suicide in the north are twice as great in areas of socio-economic deprivation when compared with more affluent communities.

Schools that were able to offer counselling provision are no longer in a position to do so as the devastating budgetary cuts hit hard across the education sector. Departmental emails land in the inbox warning school leaders to live within their means. The Healthy Happy Minds initiative was an early casualty of the cuts, removing the capacity to set up and fund counselling within schools and be in a position to pro-actively respond when children face harsh episodes of adversity in their lives.

The Healthy Happy Minds initiative was an early casualty of budget cuts, removing the capacity to set up and fund counselling within schools and be in a position to pro-actively respond when children face harsh episodes of adversity in their lives
The Healthy Happy Minds initiative was an early casualty of budget cuts, removing the capacity to set up and fund counselling within schools and be in a position to pro-actively respond when children face harsh episodes of adversity in their lives The Healthy Happy Minds initiative was an early casualty of budget cuts, removing the capacity to set up and fund counselling within schools and be in a position to pro-actively respond when children face harsh episodes of adversity in their lives

And yet even the availability of counselling services provides no guarantee. The sobering truth is that it’s a complicated issue with many contributing factors: an increasingly fragmented society, the difficulty of developing resilience amongst our youth and of being willing to reach out when the dark clouds gather.

We can’t always make things right, but prioritising mental health must mean doing all we can, including financially investing on both a significant and consistent basis.

It’s not enough just to tell them it’s ok to not be ok.

:: If you or someone you know is in distress or needs support they can contact Lifeline free on 0808 808 8000 or Samaritans on 116 123. For advice on mental and emotional wellbeing see www.mindingyourhead.info.