Tuesday 21 January 2020

'We've become too complacent about the mental wellbeing of others' - priest's warning after high number of suicides in town

  • 'Beware complacency' warns priest after toll of 15 suicides in six years

  • A high number of suicides prompted a priest to seek ways of tackling tragedies in his country parish

Elisha Gault (14), of Carrick-on-Suir, who took her own life last month. Elisha’s body was found in the River Suir more than a week after she went missing
Elisha Gault (14), of Carrick-on-Suir, who took her own life last month. Elisha’s body was found in the River Suir more than a week after she went missing

Alan O'Keeffe

Giving pastoral support in the aftermath of 15 suicides in six years in a small community has prompted a priest to warn that society has become "too complacent" about the mental well-being of others.

Fr Paschal Moore helped organise a public meeting in Piltown, Co Kilkenny, some years ago in response to an alarming rise in suicides in his parish.

Almost 300 people attended the meeting where parents spoke of their fears for the well-being of their children.

The death toll among young people heightened local concern.

Over the years, there were more tragedies and he has given homilies at "well in excess" of 20 funerals of parishioners who took their own lives, he said.

Fr Moore (71) recently delivered a widely reported homily at the funeral of schoolgirl Elisha Gault.

Fr Paschal Moore: ‘Everyone needs support’
Fr Paschal Moore: ‘Everyone needs support’

Speaking generally last week about the hundreds of suicides that take place in Ireland each year, he said: "We must never become complacent about the well-being of others.

"Complacency can result in us being too busy or too self-centred to notice how others are really feeling."

Five weeks ago, a major search began for 14-year-old Elisha Gault who went missing from her home in Carrick-on-Suir. It was feared the troubled teenager had taken her own life. After an extensive search, her body was found in the River Suir more than a week later.

Her funeral was held in nearby Piltown as the family had only recently moved from the village into the bigger town of Carrick-on-Suir.

At the funeral, Fr Moore urged young people to form support networks of "real friends" rather than "artificial friends" on Facebook.

Addressing young people in the congregation, he said: "You need real people around you, real genuine people and I would encourage you, every one of you, to find a real, good support network for yourselves."

He went on to say: "We all need support - from the oldest to the youngest of us.

"We need people who will listen, people who will talk to us and people who will be a shoulder to lean on."

He appealed to the young to take a leaflet as they left the church entitled My Support Network.

When invited by the Sunday Independent recently to comment on his experiences working with the problem of suicide in communities, he said he would not say anything about Elisha's tragic death and his comments would be based on previous personal experiences.

As a younger priest, he said he was acutely aware of his own shortcomings when he arrived at the scene of a suicide of a young teenage boy.

He had gone to the boy's home while the body was still there.

A visibly shaken doctor was leaving the house and the medic told the priest to console the boy's mother.

"I felt myself shaking and felt completely inadequate as I tried to console her," recalled the priest. "That night I went home to an empty house and felt utter desperation.

"I felt absolutely alone and isolated so I turned on every light in the house and turned on the television and radio at the same time," he said.

He later joined a group outside the parish that encouraged members to talk about their problems with each other.

He progressed to doing research on suicide and he earned a degree in counselling and psychotherapy.

Sadly, as time went by, he found himself far too frequently dealing with the tragedy of suicide.

The River Suir has claimed many lives as it flows down the valley from Carrick-on-Suir, near the village of Piltown, and onwards through Fiddown and Mooncoin on its way to Waterford.

A number of local searches for missing people over the years have begun downstream of Fiddown Bridge.

A few kilometres upstream, the town of Carrick is the base of a volunteer group named the River Suir Suicide Patrol.

At the funerals of those whose lives ended in suicide, Fr Moore said it was his priestly duty to try to assure families that their loved one had gone into "the presence of a loving God".

"While suicide is never the right choice, I feel passionate about Christ and believe people really need to hear at such sad times of the love and mercy of God," he said.

He recognised that the grief caused by suicide can be complicated by taboo and stigma. He also was aware that in some instances there could be a tendency among some people to wrongly seek a "scapegoat" for what happened.

Grieving loved ones can sometimes mistakenly feel they bear some responsibility for a tragedy and feel vulnerable to the judgments of others, he said.

In his parish, he has facilitated workshops for children aged from 12 to 15 that promote good mental health. The workshops include the topics of self-esteem, coping with bullying, body image, peer pressure, mindfulness, and building resilience.

He has devised a series of talks for sports clubs and other groups aimed at suicide prevention which he has delivered when invited to visit other communities around County Kilkenny.

He said he believes that every family and group that has suffered bereavement through suicide should try to find the strength to speak as openly as possible of their tragedy.

He called for more generous State funding for suicide prevention groups so that they do not have to expend so much of their energy fundraising instead of focusing on their work.

"The Government should ensure that as much urgency goes into campaigns to prevent suicide as the campaigns against drink-driving and smoking," he added.

He said he sometimes felt "a big emotional toll" when working amid the grief of suicide in families.

He has taken regular steps to protect his own mental well-being through sociable activities. That includes indulging his life-long interest in table tennis.

While based in the parish of Rosbercon as a young priest, he coached the top under-14 female players in Ireland.

He is delighted that the five tennis tables in Piltown Community Centre are often busy with players who have come to Ireland as emigrants from several different countries.

He also regularly plays the harmonica in a band called The Breeze and in a seven-piece group named The Mojo Peppers Blues Band.

He said he draws considerable strength from the ongoing support and encouragement of his parishioners.

Overall, he hoped to always encourage people to talk about their mental pain.

"The more you conceal that pain, the more it grows," he said.

Sunday Independent

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