Mary Kenny: 'Normalising' suicide will make prevention a greater struggle
William Shakespeare was much celebrated around the world over the weekend - it being the 400th anniversary of his death - and many would nominate Hamlet's soliloquy as being the best-known of all time: "To be, or not to be: that is the question." It's been rendered in hundreds of languages, including text-speak (2B R nt 2B…).
The famous speech is actually a contemplation of suicide. Hamlet is asking himself whether it is better to fight against "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" or "to die, to sleep…perchance to dream". When faced with a feeling of unbearable misery, the idea of suicide has surely entered everyone's head. And some people have always felt impelled to end their lives either from despair, or when suffering from mental (or physical) illness.
Suicide was once not only against the law, but in western culture, it was disparaged as "the coward's way out" in popular literature. Coroners and health officials would often try to minimise the stigma for families by giving ambiguous reasons for a death which usually was, in truth, suicide. "Death by misadventure". "Death by mishap". And there was the compassionate phrase which offered solace to the bereaved: "Took his own life while the balance of his mind was disturbed."
A relative of mine by marriage, suffering from depression, made 17 attempts to take her own life, and finally succeeded. But even then, "suicide" was not written on the death certificate, and to be honest, there was a sense of relief in the family. Those bereaved by suicide nearly always feel they have failed to rescue the person who died, and any margin of doubt is, irrationally, welcomed.
Stigmatising suicide is unkind, but surely it is alarming when suicide becomes "normalised". Maura Murphy, the principal of St Mary's CBS school in Portlaoise - which has seen the suicides of three pupils, plus the suicide of an adult relation of one of the dead youngsters - is concerned that this is what is happening with suicide now: that it is being "normalised".
She's dismayed by the amount of young people "who actually see it as an option ... if things go sideways". A child told her, last week, that "he has a message from someone who is going to kill themselves. It was an option; now it's actually part of the culture".
Although it is claimed by the National Office of Suicide Prevention that Ireland's suicide rate is stabilising - there was a "significant increase" during the recession - nonetheless, the cluster of suicides by young people in the Midlands cannot be described as anything other than utterly tragic.
A Portlaoise priest, Fr Paddy Byrne, spoke last week about the melancholy role of pastors ministering to so many funerals of suicides, and his fear that he could become "desensitised to the horrific reality that people are taking their lives in such numbers". Last month, in Newbridge, Co Kildare, five young men took their own lives, but Fr Byrne says he is conducting funerals for men and women.
Ms Murphy and Fr Byrne list reasons why they are faced with this regular occurrence of suicide. Social media has sometimes isolated individuals from real friendships; there is family breakdown; mental health issues; "remaining silent when carrying an emotional burden"; and a crisis of spirituality. Alcohol, opiates, unemployment and financial worries also play their part. People often need help.
And yet, there is help available to those who are troubled by suicidal thoughts. The HSE provides a suicide prevention officer - it's Josephine Rigney in the midlands; many schools and institutions provide access to counsellors; the Samaritans are always accessible; as is the excellent suicide prevention charity, Console, started by Paul Kelly after he lost a beloved sister to suicide.
But if Maura Murphy is correct, and suicide is being "normalised" as just another choice, prevention is an uphill struggle.
Has the "right to die" movement encouraged the idea that suicide is "just another option"? Euthanasia, or mercy-killing, might be understandable where people are facing a terrible terminal illness, but where this is translated into a "right" to die for the young and healthy, then surely it's advancing the "normalisation" of suicide.
If there was a taboo on suicide in the past, it was for a reason: it is so hurtful to those left behind. Ask the pastors who are regularly conducting funeral services for the bereaved, who are inconsolable about the "huge void" left in their lives after such a death.
Maybe popular culture is presenting the consequences of suicide more starkly. A recent Nordic-noir thriller, 'Follow the Money', featured a character who took his own life after his financial plans collapsed and he went bankrupt. It's interesting to note that this was portrayed in a disapproving way. "That's no answer to anything," said one of the other characters. "Imagine doing that to his kids," commented a police officer.
And Hamlet the Dane, anguished though he was, did conclude that whatever slings and arrows came our way, "self-slaughter" wasn't the right thing to do.