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High suicide rates in Belfast linked to ‘the Troubles’ - expert

BELFAST must collectively acknowledge the hurt and suffering of the Troubles in a bid to tackle the city's high suicide rates, an international expert has urged.

Leading psychologist Dr David Becker outlined the particular mental health problems associated with communities emerging from conflict as he addressed a suicide prevention event in City Hall.

The day-long Celebrating Life conference - which saw families touched by suicide joined by representatives of counselling and preventative groups - was organised by Lord Mayor Niall O Donnghaile.

At the event, the mayor announced that suicide awareness training was to be introduced for all 2,500 staff and politicians at the council.

Dr Becker, a German specialist in trauma and grief, said the link between suicide and conflict was not straightforward.

"There is a linkage between the legacy of the Troubles and your suicide rates but it's not a direct thing," he said.

"So it's too simple to say people are traumatised so they commit suicide, it's much more complicated.

"Resilience is often misunderstood as an individual capacity, like 'You're a strong person, so you're resilient'.

"But resilience actually is a social process, it's something we all construct together and the legacy of trauma and destruction that you've had here, one of the key questions is how you deal with mourning processes, how do people deal with different griefs they've had.

"The grieving of people is partially the Troubles, is partially the economic situation but a big question we have to ask ourselves is how do we talk about the suffering of people, past suffering and present suffering?

"And is the language we use, one that empowers people or forces them to deny even more what happened to them."

He said a different approach was needed in places where there had been a history of violence.

"When you have a history of conflict and war and violent conflict you have to do something with this past which is not only in terms of justice and peace talks and whatever, but there is the psychological process of change involved.

"Somehow you have to grieve what you have lost in your past and you have to grieve that the present isn't so funny either."

The expert said it was important for all spectrums of society - from government to the media - to develop a language that acknowledged past losses.

"When things hurt we would like them to be past and gone by and over but you need room to grieve, you need people to confirm to you what happened," he explained.

"When a child falls down and hurts his knee, he runs to his mum crying, actually the knee doesn't hurt so much but what the child wants is a confirmation and acknowledgement of the knee that is hurt.

"And in a big way grief processes, healthy processes have a lot to do with acknowledgement, with sharing, with talking and recognising what has been lost and when that doesn't happen people develop depressive processes."

He added: "It's a big spectrum, and it's a question: can we jointly develop an empowering language that recognises reality but also shows new ways of celebrating life?"

The mayor said there was a need for politicians to develop policies that ensured everyone in society was treated with respect.

"The responsibility for developing respect rests with each and everyone of us whatever line of work we are involved in but it is particularly the responsibility of government and politicians because they have the power and the resources that are needed to ensure that society is shaped with respect for the person as a core principle.

"There is an abundance of evidence to show that all human beings are vulnerable - vulnerability is part of the human condition, it's part of the human experience.

"No-one should be afraid to recognise the vulnerability of that human condition, we deal with it everyday of our lives, with our own emotions, with family members and with friends.

"And it is that experience of vulnerability which government and politicians have to be aware of, just like respecting each person's integrity it needs to be reflected in government policies."

A report on the conference will be drafted to inform the development of an emotional resilience and well-being strategy for the city.

A new annual Lord Mayor's Award, recognising individual efforts to promote positive mental health and help others, was also announced.

Mr O Donnghaile added: "Too many families across our city have been touched by the tragedy of suicide and, while acknowledging the good work being done by so many in the community, I want to play my part in addressing a subject which has such devastating consequences.

"I hope what I have organised today will be direct engagement between statutory groups, local community groups, young people and their families - all of us working together to make a positive contribution to life in Belfast.

"I believe that working in partnership, we can put together an action plan that will help save lives."