THE former Fianna Fail government minister Jim McDaid was almost universally reviled a number of years ago as a result of talking on radio about suicide. The tragedy of teen suicide was by no means as prevalent then as it is now, and McDaid, a medical doctor, described a conversation with the mother of a teenage boy who had recently killed himself. Talking to Dr McDaid, she had castigated her dead son as selfish, and McDaid said he had agreed with her. Cue public outrage.
The condemnation ran along the lines of, "McDaid was cruel and irresponsible". In the first place, it was disrespectful to speak ill of the dead. In the second, third, and fourth place, if a young person killed him or herself, they were beautiful, tragic, and too good for this world. Only good must be spoken of them. They were loving and generous, incapable of selfishness.
Is there a connection between that fairly long-ago outpouring of outrage against a grieving mother who told the simple truth and what is becoming an epidemic of suicide among teenagers and young adults? I believe there is. By failing to criticise in unequivocal terms an act which devastates those left behind, we make it seem an isolated, even heroic act which leaves no broken hearts, no repercussions.
Depression, temporary or otherwise, is usually deemed to be the cause of suicide. Depression is fashionable nowadays. There is a rush among people of all ages to various forms of public confession. Everyone is encouraged to talk about feeling bad, to detail their symptoms endlessly. The endless stream of confession is justified as a method of ensuring that those who are depressed must not be allowed to feel that they are alone.
The result of this is that somebody who is depressed for a good reason jumps to the conclusion that they are ill when they should realise that there would be something wrong with them if they weren't depressed, for the simple reason that life can deal you a rough hand from time to time . . . or even all the time.
But we have created an illusion of a happy bubble. We don't accept that emotional pain is an inevitable part of being alive rather than being a temporary or even a long-standing illness. We want somebody else to take it on board: as in therapy, or the
magic cure of a pill which blocks out the pain. The problem with that is that when the therapist goes home or the pill wears off, there's your depression beaming maliciously at you.
Yes, there are depressive illnesses. But a lot of the time in this increasingly self-indulgent world of ours, what people describe as depressive illness should merely be called life. And life can be tragic as well as comic, horrible as well as beautiful. In fact, nobody has a perfect life, no matter how it looks from the outside. To wonder why our own lives can't be as complete as we perceive those of others to be is an unpleasant form of envious self-absorption.
Unfortunately, it is those who spill their emotional guts in a frenzy of self-pity who are regarded as "spiritual", that cop-out from intellectual rigour, while those who grit their teeth in exactly the same situations, heads up and chins out, are not infrequently described as tough and hard.
And it is because we have reared today's young generation to believe that life should be perfect that they can't cope when it goes wrong, even temporarily. We fear for their emotional fragility, quite rightly. But it is we who have made them fragile. Our materialism and crass approach to prosperity reared a generation which still believes that happiness lies in life being a permanent party, demanding contentment as another commodity.
But when the emotional darkness still can't be kept at bay, they don't understand it: teenagers are meant to be perfectly happy, they reason, life is for fun. And suddenly, there is no point continuing if things aren't perfect. After all, everyone else has a perfect life, so I must end mine. I don't want to swing from the emotional rafters anymore, so there's something wrong with me. I'm not normal.
How can they think otherwise? They have not often enough heard the word 'no'. They have been cosseted and the logical outcome is to seek a drastic solution to unhappiness. Jim McDaid was vilified when he said that, or rather, when he repeated that a mother had said it. And we have gone through hundreds of appalling, unnecessary tragedies since then with nobody daring to say that suicide can be an act of selfishness.
It may be triggered by depression or loneliness. It may be carefully planned. It may just as likely happen in a fuzzy mental state altered by alcohol or chemical drugs. It may be an act of amazing courage, as in the case of the inspirational Marie Fleming, wanting to be allowed dignity in death without compromising the lover who is willing to help her end the horror. It may be an act of revenge on a bully by a miserably unhappy schoolgirl. It may be many things. But it is always cruel on those left behind, as we have seen increasingly over recent years as corteges of weeping friends and relatives, horribly often of shattered schoolgirls and boys, accompany a coffin to the grave.
We have lost the ability to articulate anger in clear and unequivocal words. We use the word 'inappropriate' when we should be saying 'inexcusable'. We say 'confused' when we should be saying 'monstrous'. A few weeks ago when writing of the terrible suicide of government minister Shane McEntee, in part – and it can only be part of it – as a result of online abuse, I described those who indulge in anonymous verbal poison whether in virtual or actual reality, as sick perverted failures, or maybe just filthy-minded blackhearted begrudgers. Since then, those words of mine have been described as "foul language," adding that I should have employed words of "compassion and understanding" for the bullies. About people who set out deliberately to make somebody else's life a misery.
Unfortunately "compassion and understanding" sometimes can be better described as intellectual and emotional inertia. And when it concerns something as terrible as suicide, particularly the suicide of those who have not even begun to live, we need to feel sick with outrage at the unnecessary, cruel loss. Pity is always negative.