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Speech at the Irish Association of Suicidology Annual Conference

Killashee House Hotel, Naas, Co. Kildare, 8th October 2015

Tá áthas orm a bheith anseo tráthnóna chun comhdháil bhliaintúil an Chumann Éireannach um Eolaíocht an Fhéinmharaithe, eagraíocht a bhfuilim i mo phatrún uirthí, a oscailt go hoifigiúil. Is mian liom mo bhuíochas ghabháil leis an Dr. John Connolly as ucht a chuiridh caoin, agus libhse ar fad as ucht na fíorchaoin fáilte sin.

[I am delighted to be here this afternoon to officially open the annual conference of the Irish Suicidology Association, an organisation of which I am Patron. May I thank Dr John Connolly for his kind invitation and all of you for that generous welcome.]

We must all recognise by now that there are very few communities in Ireland who have been spared the sadness and pain that surrounds suicide. The devastating consequences of suicide have touched the lives of many families and individuals, who have been left behind to struggle with the bewilderment, sorrow and profound loss that can overwhelm suicide survivors as they try to come to terms with the tragic death of a loved one.

The statistics in Ireland, and indeed globally, are sobering and worrying.  Approximately one million people around the world commit suicide each year, a figure greater than the combined numbers of people who die by homicide and war. In Ireland, 554 people took their own lives in 2014. It is also reasonable to conjecture that, when under reporting of suicide is taken into account, that figure could be even greater- far exceeding the number of people who die annually on our roads.

These are figures that must concern us all, not just to health professionals and policy makers, and those directly affected by suicide; but all those who value or aspire to help in creating a cohesive society, all those who wish to play their role in shaping a national community, one that cares about and cherishes all of its citizens - especially at times of crisis.

It is critical that we strive to understand, address and give a policy response to the complex and multifaceted problem that is suicide: 

  • the overwhelming despair that leads so many of our citizens, particularly our young people, to take their own lives;
  • the uniquely painful legacy that a suicide victim leaves behind to loved ones;
  • the supports those loved ones need as they come to terms with their heartbreaking loss; and,
  • critically, how to prevent the many tragic suicides, recorded and hidden, that occur in our society each year.

If the structure of the problem is complex, its component parts, the inputs to the problem can be addressed directly and indirectly.

Suicide is a complex matter to understand – one that is impossible to ascribe to a fixed set of biological, psychological, social or cultural factors.  It is one of the oldest areas of sociological investigation where Emile Durkheim drew a distinction between the rate and the incidence of suicide. The rate being influenced by issues such as the threat of descent into poverty through unemployment, we should also accept the influence of mediating circumstances like alcohol abuse, and of external pressures such as intolerance of sexual differences and bullying.

We have been slow in recognising the destructive consequences of many of these factors, but in recent times, we have thankfully come to be better educated about suicide and its causes and consequences. Much work has been done to remove the stigma and shame that so often surrounds a death by suicide.

We still, however, have much ground to cover, and conferences like this are important in fostering open and wide ranging discussion on a matter which has for too long been confined, and delegated inappropriately, to the privacy of family mourning.

Depression, which can be rooted in many causes, has been identified as one of the main factors leading to suicide. There is also, we know, a strong association between economic factors and the rate of suicidal behaviour. We cannot disengage the rise in suicides in recent years from the environment of anxiety, fear and despair which grew out of our serious economic crisis.

We know, for instance that The Young Men and Suicide Project reported a causal link between rising unemployment and higher levels of alcohol consumption and increased suicide mortality among younger males. We also know that, when and for whatever reason, our response to fiscal features is to cut or reduce public services, it is those who are already vulnerable living on the fringes of society and excluded through homelessness, addiction or poverty, who suffer most and become most at risk.  

Prof. Michael Cronin in a chapter in a recent book “Ireland under Austerity” deals with the issues of suicide, violence and austerity.  He quotes the All Ireland Young Men and Suicide Project; which shows that for the age group 15-24 suicide a major cause of death, the report also shows the rate for young men is 5 times more than for females.

The impact of suicide on our young generation is very serious.  Peer loyalty and the pressure to conform, under a battery of pressures including commercial pressure, ignorance and the violence sourced in it means suicide risk, especially pronounced among teenagers, can be another source of malaise feeding into suicidal dispositions.  The focus on the specific problem of suicide amongst young people, which will be the theme of several of the talks and discussions that will take place here over the next two days, is a welcome one. 

In 2012 the Irish Medical Journal reported that, in the previous twenty years, there had been a 16 per cent increase in the rate of suicide in Irish teens under the age of 17.

Last year a report by the European Child Safety Alliance showed that the suicide rate among girls in Ireland is almost two and a half times the EU average while the male youth rate is twice the EU average.  It was also reported during that year that almost half the people seeking help from crisis centres for the prevention of self-harm and suicide were under 18 – and one in five were aged 14 or younger.

These are deeply worrying statistics, which cannot fail to cause us, as a society, considerable disquiet.  As President of Ireland, I cannot imagine any issue of more serious concern or one that demands more urgent action.

It is critical that young people suffering from depression, or a sense of disengagement from peers or family, or the many other social stresses that lead them down the despairing road to suicide are not deterred from seeking help by feelings of shame or fear of being stigmatised.  We must ask how our institutional provision is structured, resourced and made friendly and receptive to these needs.

It is also important that we enable those interacting with young people to have the skills, recognise the signs and indicators when a young person is struggling with suicidal feelings and intervene as quickly as possible.  It is our duty, as citizens and members of a community, to safeguard our young people and to be aware of the factors that can put them at risk of taking their own lives. As a society, we must work together to tackle the destructive and damaging pressures which cause so much harm to the mental wellbeing of our young people.  Included in these pressures must be the demands of any elements to insatiable consumption, heavily marketed and resourced.  This is an area where national health policy should strive to put limits in place.

In an increasingly technological age this must also include strategies to deal with those who abuse modern technology in order to carry out sustained and vicious bullying campaigns with, in many cases, serious or fatal consequences. 

I read last week the results of a survey which showed that one in four Irish teenagers have been victims of cyber bullying, compared to one in five teenagers across the other ten countries which took part in the same survey.

This is a serious and disturbing finding, highlighting one of the many issues that must be addressed in this country if we are to eradicate bullying from our schools, our workplaces and our communities.    We should not simply aspire to eliminate bullying from all these settings. We must end it.  No more than erasing gender violence, we must do it now.

Suicide prevention concerns us all and requires a comprehensive and joined up approach, involving all relevant Government Departments, agencies and stakeholders.  The new National Suicide Prevention Strategy, which aims to reduce suicides by 10 per cent by the year 2020, recognises this need and aims to create connections between the appropriate services. While this is a commendable objective which will allow for co-ordinated and effective action as our society addresses the myriad and complex factors which influence suicidal behaviour, no more than eliminating gender violence, we do not have to wait to act on suicide prevention, on facing up to the factors that feed into the rate and the incidence of suicide.

The title of the strategy ‘Connecting for Life’ reminds us that the answers to addressing suicide do not lie exclusively with health care professionals, politicians or researchers.  Each one of us has a role to play in building communities that are inclusive and, while of course compassionate, recognise the importance of self worth in all our citizens; in facilitating a national conversation which will enable us, as a society, to develop and nurture a culture in which people in distress are encouraged to belong, a culture that embraces difference, non-conformity and the contribution of each of its citizens.  I do agree with those who call for an end to individualising and psychologistic reductions in explanation.  The sources are not confined to the person.  They are in the assumptions of society.

That is why conferences such as this one are important, playing a significant role in encouraging a continued conversation on the issues of suicide and its prevention.

Your programme is a wide ranging one, covering areas such as the identification of at risk individuals in our schools, the dangers of internet bullying, supports for those who have been bereaved through suicide, and intervention strategies for 3rd level students who are experiencing suicidal feelings. 

These two days are a valuable and inspiring coming together of a wealth of expertise and areas of interest in a generous sharing of wisdom and experience. I have no doubt that your discussions here will be fruitful ones which will play an important role in our ongoing battle to reduce the number of suicides which take place in Ireland each year.

Mar fhocal scoir, is mian liom sibh a mholadh agus mo bhuíochas a ghabháil libh arís as cuireadh a thabhairt dom bheith anseo libh, agus guím gach rath ar bhur gcomhdháil.

[May I conclude by commending you all and thanking you once again for inviting me here today.  I wish you a successful conference.]