News Analysis

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Marie MacSweeney: Why we need to have a level of taboo on the subject of suicide

Marie MacSweeney

Published 30/12/2012 | 05:00

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TWO words shout out from Brendan O'Connor's excellent article on suicide, published recently in this newspaper. They are the words private and taboo.

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In an age that is rapidly losing its instinct for privacy, in which the process of obsessive revelation of the self is encouraged on all sides, it may indeed seem strange to suggest that there should be privacy around such matters as suicide, and indeed that suicide should be, to a degree, a taboo subject.

Yet, it is increasingly common now to be warned to be careful of our 'mental health', encouraging us to acknowledge mental health problems in ourselves and in others, to see mental health issues everywhere we look, to anticipate them around every bend in the road. And since suicide and mental health have been inextricably linked, there is a notion abroad that there should be no stigma to suicide. None whatsoever! How impressionable young minds process these messages can only be imagined.

However, there are other serious consequences. There is no clarity as to which are the real diseases of the mind and which are the feelings of hopelessness or helplessness pouring in upon us at this critical hour in our history are nothing more perhaps than a proper and inevitable response to life's oppressions. The language of medical science comes with no signposts, either good or bad. What we have been given is one amorphous mass of entrapment inside a fog of doom and gloom.

Nor is there a moral framework for the discussion. No one has mentioned the generation of an ambiguous attitude to bullying. Yet we have celebrity chef programmes, Big Brother programmes, talent contests, Come Dine With Me events (in short, a variety of reality TV), all of which encourage participants to rubbish each other and to sneer at or humiliate their opponents. So shock, horror when young impressionable minds begin to act 'tough'.

Then there is the question of friendship. How can children inhabit friendships online? Is this the nature of friendship? Is it down to numbers, showing off and inane soundbite exchanges? Who is telling them that it's doubtful if true friendship can be pursued and achieved in this way? Who is saying that it is the integrity and quality of their relationships that is important, not the quantity?

And so to stars – and superstars! Is the cult of celebrity making our young people mere consumers of other people's talent? They are encouraged to flock to these portals of beauty and fame, pay up and consume. How much healthier if every child received the affirmation needed to develop his or her own gifts entirely without reference to the 'stars'?

Is it possible they might learn that these pampered people are over-hyped individuals who will not greatly enlarge, and may even constrict, the world of art and culture that is open to them?

There is also the violence in society, in individuals. A few years ago, the brutal murder in Drimnagh of two Polish men spurred a local priest into calling for a national debate on the nature of our society.

We have not even begun that discussion on how shallow the ambitions and values of people became during the Celtic Tiger years, the embrace of the 'every-man-for-himself' mentality, the conspicuous consumerism, the casual abandonment of good manners.

There was also the lethal acquisitiveness of the political, banking and business machine of that era, and the ignorant hubris of its leaders. Those years brought about the deaths of love and hope in many Irish people, only to be followed by a betrayal so utterly shameless in its operation that our hearts are sore and our minds still reeling.

So we have a right to be upset, depressed, whatever you're having! And it's not that we are mentally ill. It's that we feel powerless, it's that we crave redress, some balance of good and bad luck, if you like, in our lives. And power that matters. In the place of threats and arrogance, meaningful dialogue with those making the decisions. Our children and grandchildren need this, too. What they feel about themselves is the basis of how they relate to others. They can't feel good if their parents are feeling utterly defeated.

The priest at the Donegal funeral of young Shannon Gallagher stated categorically that "the time for talking is over". He is right. We need healing in this society, and it matters not whether those who call for change are Christian clerics or non-believers. We can follow what is human and good.

With immediate effect, we need to discover how we can strengthen each other and not allow an over-emphasis on mental health enervate an entire nation.

As Brendan O'Connor said in his article before Christmas, we need not brush the question of suicide under the carpet to do that. But we do need to be carefully aware. We need to take charge.

Sunday Independent

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