Niamh Greene: Donal left a lasting legacy with anti-suicide message, it's up to us to keep it alive
Published 17/09/2013 | 14:24
DONAL Walsh has been posthumously named Rehab Young Person of the Year, a fitting and poignant tribute to a young man whose anti-suicide message touched the hearts and minds of the nation.
Donal battled cancer from the age of twelve and was only sixteen when he passed away. Facing death, he called on his peers to live life to the fullest and reject suicide.
"I feel angry that these people choose to take their life, to ruin their family and to leave behind a mess that no one can clean up, while here I am with no choice in my sentence, trying as best I can to prepare my family and friends for what's about to come and to leave as little mess as possible," he said.
"So please, as a sixteen-year-old who has no say in his death sentence, who has no choice in the pain he is about to cause and who would take any chance at even a few more months on this planet, appreciate what you have, know that there are always other options and help is always there."
Those words are worth reading again.
Donal's honest and heartfelt plea struck a real chord, especially in south Kerry where there were no suicides in a six-month period after he spoke out. Now the question is how to keep the impetus up, especially for those young people who feel driven to suicide by relentless bullying and online abuse.
How can we let them know that they're not alone and that they have, as Donal said, other options?
Hopefully, the new measures announced by the Department of Education to tackle bullying in schools will go some way to preventing these tragedies.
By Easter, every primary and secondary school in the State will be legally obliged to establish strong, clear procedures on bullying, including cyber-bullying.
The guidelines include tips for creating a positive school culture, building pupils' self-esteem, raising awareness about appropriate online behaviour and holding discussions on identity, relationships and sexual identity.
It's hard to say if any of it will help.
Bullies often ignore the rules. They operate under the radar, out of the sight and earshot of those in authority. They thrive in a culture of silence where fear of reprisal prevents victims and onlookers from speaking up.
Will the new measures help teachers to monitor what happens when their backs are turned, or parents to read the signals that their child is being bullied, or is indeed a bully?
Will pupils feel more able to report incidents they witness or endure or will the mentality of 'don't ask, don't tell', so commonplace in Irish society, still prevail?
Donal Walsh knew the value and critical importance of talking about the tough topics that are often easier to ignore.
As his father, Fionnbar, said: "He opened up the conversation, which is half the battle."
Hopefully, the new guidelines will encourage others to open up a conversation too. Shining a light on a problem is always the first step towards resolving it, and if these measures are that first step then they are to be welcomed, because if even one life is saved as a result then the initiative will have been worthwhile.
Donal Walsh's parents still receive mail every day from people who decided not to take their lives because of their son's words. Now it's up to all of us to keep his message -- and his legacy -- alive.
He did his bit, we have to do ours.
A foundation has been set up in Donal's Walsh's memory, visit www.donalwalshlivelife.org