Why our young men are in crisis
John Meagher investigates an alarming upsurge in male suicides and the number of men seeking help for mental health issues
Published 03/11/2013 | 01:00
The moment when Keith Geraghty was set to kill himself remains etched in his mind. He was only 25. He was on a well known hill in Dublin, around the corner from his childhood home, and had made his way to the wall overlooking a disussed quarry. Jumping from such a height would be fatal and he knew it.
When he stood there, at a spot beloved of so many because of the panoramic views afforded of the city, all he could think of was escape. He was unable to contemplate the anguish it would cause his partner, Colette, and their unborn child, or of his young son, Emmet. His only consideration was that his life had thrown up one disappointment after the next and he had come to believe that he was better off out of it.
"I had reached that tipping point where I didn't want to go on any more," the musician says. "I had suffered from depression for most of my life up to that point, but it got really acute as my 20s wore on. I felt nothing was working out to plan. The band I'd been in hadn't got anywhere and I was struggling financially, trying to live with my family in a cramped one-bedroom flat. I could find very little to make me happy. I'd withdrawn from friends. I was internalising everything I felt."
But in that split-second before he climbed up on the wall to jump, he had a change of heart. "I can't explain it," he says, "but at that very moment I thought that I should give myself another 24 hours and see how I felt then."
Keith was in a daze as he slowly walked back to the apartment he shared with Colette a few miles away. And it was on this fateful walk home that his life would change.
"I heard someone calling me. It was my friend, Derek, who I hadn't seen in about nine months. He could see immediately that something was badly wrong. We went for a coffee and I told him where I'd just been. He gave me the greatest kick up the arse – and I needed it. He showed me all that was good about my life and the devastation it would cause to all those near to me. It was the most important conversation of my life – and it helped me turn the corner."
Today, Keith is 43 and says he never again felt suicidal. "The depression is still there – and it can get bad – but the difference is I can manage it now. I was so lucky to bump into Derek that day – if I hadn't met him then I don't think I'd be here now. Now I know that there's always a better way than suicide, but it breaks my heart to know that for many young men, it's the only option they can see."
The plight of Ireland's young males was thrown into sharp relief this week when former Cork hurler Conor Cusack wrote an astonishingly frank account of his own battles with depression and his once suicidal tendencies. His blog entry went viral and gave Ireland an opportunity to take a long hard look at itself and its alarmingly high rate of young male suicide.
And, in an arresting RTE Prime Time interview, Conor – brother of the acclaimed GAA figure Donal Óg – brought the viewer into that dark place he found himself some years ago when he had selected the rope, location and time that he planned to hang himself.
It comes a week after the much publicised death of Galway hurler Niall Donohue, at only 22. During the homily, his parish priest, Fr Pat Callanan, spoke about the need for communities to pull together and to protect the vulnerable.
"We look out for each other and be aware of any signs of difficulty in a person's life," he said. "Were he here, were he to speak to any one of you who is having difficulty in your own lives, he would tell you to go back in a second time and talk to someone. Today, as you stand next to the people you love, remember Niall and be brave enough to talk."
His words are echoed by Paul Kelly, founder of the suicide prevention charity, Console. Like so many Irish people, Paul knows of the devastating effects of suicide following the death of his sister, Sharon, at only 21. "It is good that we are finally having a national conversation about suicide, because it is something that rips lives apart," he says. "Young men are especially vulnerable, and the figures bear that out."
Men account for 80pc of all suicides in Ireland each year, and of the total figure, 40pc are carried out by men under the age of 40 – the suicide rate in this age category is the fourth-highest in the EU.
The problem is getting worse – and more complex. Today's young men may feel that they don't enjoy the security their fathers and grandfathers once had because of job losses, blanket pay cuts, the proliferation of short-term contracts and the erosion of traditional male employment sectors such as construction.
Long-held notions of masculinity are being questioned and dismantled. Factor in the sense of isolation in the hyper-connected world of Twitter and Facebook and today's men face challenges their forebears could hardly have imagined.
"One of the things we're constantly hearing from young men who phone us is the enormous financial pressure they're under in this recession," says Paul. "They've lost jobs, they're in serious debt, they're worried about keeping a roof over the heads of their family.
'And those who are still in employment can feel a great sense of insecurity – the job-for-life idea seems to have gone out the window, and men's long-established place in the workforce isn't what it was. They desperately want to be the provider, the protector, but feel that external forces are making such a wish impossible."
Joan Freeman, founder of suicide counselling service Pieta House, says relationship breakdowns can take a tragic toll. "It can be the final straw for men who are in a particularly vulnerable place," she says. "Often it's not just their partner that men lose when a relationship finishes, but it's often their home and regular access to their children. All the things they hold dear crash around their ears at once. For younger men, the death of their mother can be very difficult to cope with."
Last year, Pieta House counselled 3,000 people, and demand is rising steadily. A centre in Roscrea, Co Tipperary, opened earlier this year with plans to open three days week, but demand has been such that it now opens six days a week, every week.
"We want to make sure that every man in Ireland is no further than 100km from one of our centres. They don't need a GP's referral letter to see us – they, or somebody close to them, can make an appointment and come and talk to us for free. And that's important too – so many men are under enormous financial strain."
Joan believes that while it is important to keep getting the message out to young men that help is at hand, it is just as crucial to alert those close to them to be on special watch.
"We have to accept that for many young men, the message is simply not getting through," she says, "and will not get through no matter what's tried. So it's time for a different approach, and the very best way is to bring the subject of suicide to their friends and family.
"In much the same way as the television campaigns about strokes are aimed at likely victims' nearest and dearest, we need to do the same when it comes to young men at risk of suicide. We need to make them aware of the warning signs because, more often than not, there are warning signs."
The charity is currently in the process of distributing booklets based on the classic warning signals that spell out the acronym, SIGNS – Sleep Deprivation, Isolation, Giving Away Possessions, Not Enjoying (hobbies or work), Speaking the Language of Suicide.
Caroline McGuigan, herself a 'suicide survivor', founded Suicide or Survive to help raise awareness of Ireland's ticking timebomb. Although she says that young men are especially vulnerable, she believes "a cross-community approach" is essential.
"Suicide should not be swept under the carpet," she says. "It needs to be talked about far more, and it is very encouraging this week that Conor Cusack has come out and spoken so candidly. Other young men can relate to what he's saying, and his words carry great power."
The GAA has taken something of a lead when it comes to suicide, with players such as Tipperary hurler Seamus Hennessy talking openly about the suicide of a close family member – and, last spring, Dublin and GAA football teams sported Suicide or Survive on their jerseys in place of their usual sponsors. "Awareness that there is help is so important," Caroline says. "Lives can be saved."
Keith Geraghty – whose band, Friends of Emmet, has written an anti-suicide song called 'Coming Apart' – is acutely aware that he too could have been a statistic. Now that he feels a sense of clarity about his past and future, he is anxious to get the message out to young men – especially transition year students – that there is always a better alternative.
"When I go to schools, they listen," he says. "Because I've been there. I know what it's like to be in that black place – and I know that with the right help everyone can get out of it and make the most of their lives.
"As a country, we have to stand up and shout stop."