The signs we need to look for to keep our boys safe
You wouldn't ignore someone getting sick in front of you, so don't be afraid to ask if someone is doing okay
Published 25/10/2013 | 21:30
Joan Freeman believes the old way is not working. Suicide awareness campaigns aimed specifically at young men are failing to reach their intended target.
"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."
Joan Freeman understands the need for such campaigns more than most. As founder of the suicide prevention charity, Pieta House, she says 3,000 people sought their help last year alone.
"There's greater need for it than ever," she says, "and especially for men, who account for 82pc of all reported suicides in Ireland.
"We have to make people aware that suicide is not something that just happens to people with a history of mental illness. We also have to get away from this idea that suicide is something that happens to other people. Suicidal feelings can arrive on anyone's door. Crucially, though, we need to get across the message that suicide is preventable."
With the latest Pieta House centre set to open in Cork, the charity will be issuing information booklets based around the warning signals that spell out the acronym, SIGNS.
S is for Sleep Deprivation. "Look out for those whose sleep patterns have gone askew and who are looking exhausted," she says.
I is for Isolation. "I'm not just talking about young men who live in isolated parts of the country, although they are a risk group, but also about previously sociable people who've begun to isolate themselves – whether it's not turning up for that pint or cup of coffee with friends, or taking themselves off social media."
G is for Giving Away Possessions. "There have been so many examples of suicide victims who gave away some cherished belongings in the weeks and days leading up to their deaths. It signals premeditated intent."
N is for Not Enjoying. "It could be hobbies or work," Freeman says. "People who had previously shown a great love of the GAA, for example, and then suddenly not going to matches."
S is for Speaking the Language. "In some ways, the biggest indicator of all is when people start saying things like 'I don't see the point of it any more' or 'my family would be better off without me'."
Joan Freeman believes it is up to each of us to recognise such behaviour in others and to act on it. "Ask them if they are okay, if there is something getting them down, if they need to talk," she says. "If someone was vomiting in front of you would you just look on and do nothing? Of course you wouldn't – and you shouldn't be afraid to speak up if you feel the person in question is displaying any of the signs that I've mentioned. If you're unsure about how to broach the subject, call us for advice at Pieta House."
Much of the success of the charity is down to the ease of access it affords people at risk of suicide or self-harm. "It is a free service and a GP's referral is not required," she says, "so people who need help can be seen very quickly.
"We always listen to people about the reasons why they want to die, but we then ask them about all the reasons there are to live. Sometimes, just talking over fears and anxieties can help you get the clarity you so badly need."
While the rate of suicide in Ireland is comparable to the rest of Europe, we are at the higher end of the spectrum when it comes to young men. An estimated 165 young men took their own lives in this country in 2011, out of a reported total of 525 suicides.
The report, from the Men's Health Forum of Ireland, was published at the beginning of this year and noted that "the recent spike in suicide rates among young males in both Northern Ireland and the Republic coincides with the economic downturn and increasing levels of unemployment".
The report warned that there are no quick-fix solutions but there is no time for inertia or complacency. It said the two key factors known to be effective in reducing suicide rates are educating GPs in the recognition and treatment of depression and restricting access to lethal means of harm.
However, it pointed out that hanging is the most frequent method used by people taking their own lives in Ireland and it is also one of the most difficult to restrict.