Sunday 25 September 2016

Donal chose life but society sends out mixed messages

Published 24/05/2013 | 17:00

Donal Walsh who died earlier this month
Donal Walsh who died earlier this month

BY one of those strange coincidences, the same day psychiatrist Kevin Malone testified to the Oireachtas Health Committee on abortion and suicide this week, he also launched a major report on suicide among Irish males.

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Dr Malone is professor of psychiatry at UCD and a consultant psychiatrist at St Vincent's hospital. He is an expert on suicide and its causes and he brought that expertise to bear at the committee hearings.

He expressed concerns about plans to include the suicide grounds in the abortion bill. He told the committee of his fear that inclusion of the suicide grounds could help to 'normalise' suicide and therefore drive up rates in society as a whole.

This would impact disproportionately on young males because young males are the most likely in the population to commit suicide.

As he wrote in an earlier submission to the Health Committee: "Based on my research . . . there is a greater likelihood that this legislation may contribute to an increased risk of suicide in Irish males through foregrounding 'suicidality' within the State for females, consequent to this legislation – an amplified cultural suicide signal through a normalisation effect. A similar increase in non-pregnant young females may also be a consequence."

To put it in layman's terms, suicide begets suicide. There is a copycat effect. The report on suicide among Irish males that Prof Malone launched highlights the fact that young men often commit suicide in 'clusters'.

This is why we have to be extremely careful how we talk about suicide. It's all very well to be open about the problem, but if we are open in the wrong way, we can inadvertently cause yet more suicides.

And if we give the impression that suicidal feelings are perfectly understandable in a given set of circumstances – for example, if a woman is confronted with an unwanted pregnancy – we can drive up the rate through the "amplified suicide signal" Prof Malone refers to.

This is why the heroic example set by Donal Walsh was and is so important. As we know, Donal was diagnosed with cancer aged 12 and died earlier this month aged 16.

By his own account, going into hospital for cancer treatment was like going into a version of hell. Suicidal feelings in this situation would seem understandable to some people but Donal completely rebelled against such thoughts.

We cheered Donal for showing such courage in the face of adversity and for turning his situation into a life-affirming message, an anti-suicide message. But it is also clear that our society is deeply conflicted on the topic of suicide and is therefore sending out mixed messages.

Recently, when Marie Fleming lost her case before the Supreme Court to have a constitutional right to assisted suicide recognised, we sympathised with her.

At a human level, this is perfectly understandable. She is in the advanced stages of Multiple Sclerosis and is suffering greatly. But it was easy to turn this natural sympathy into support for assisted suicide to be recognised in law.

So, on the one hand, we sympathise with Donal and applaud his anti-suicide message and on the other hand we sympathise with Ms Fleming and her campaign.

Sympathising with the suffering of another human being is natural but that sympathy can end up being used for contradictory purposes.

One way of reconciling the contradiction is by resorting to the ideology of choice. If it was Donal's choice to live on in the face of his suffering, then we can applaud that choice. And if it is Marie's choice to end her life rather than endure suffering, then we should applaud that choice.

But this doesn't really reconcile the contradiction because we have to decide whether suicide is desirable or not from a societal point of view.

If we say that suicide is sometimes understandable, then we cannot but drive up the rate of suicide.

What worries Prof Malone is that all the talk of suicide in connection with pregnancy broadcasts a terrible signal to society that will be picked up by those at risk of suicide and will increase the risk of them committing suicide. A debate about assisted suicide is bound to have the same effect.

So, what Irish society is doing is lamenting suicide and also talking it up. Supporting a right to assisted suicide normalises suicide. A law that legitimates feelings of suicide in pregnant women does the same.

A society that intentionally or unintentionally legitimates suicide can't even pretend to be pro-life, either of the unborn or the born.

Irish Independent

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