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Sunday 21 January 2018

The bottom line is that eight out of ten suicides are males

Recent media coverage of this troubling subject failed to point out that it is a gender issue, says Phil Mac Giolla Bhain

If you were new to the troubling subject of suicide in contemporary Ireland, then the recent Prime Time programme on the issue would not have helped you to a greater understanding.

In the usual Prime Time format, a short film by Eithne O'Brien was then followed in the studio by a discussion anchored by Keelin Shanley.

What these two well-educated young women didn't raise, either in the film or in the studio, was that eight out of 10 suicides in this Republic this year, last year and next year will be male.

In the film the words "people" and "youth" were used to describe those who had died from suicide. Although technically correct, as both men and women die by suicide, every year the dominant fact of Ireland's suicide death toll is that it is overwhelmingly male.

Any suicide, whether it is male or female, young or old, is a tragedy, but suicide on this island is mainly a killer of men, usually young men.

Like war, it is sexist and ageist. Young men die in war and young men are the main victims of suicide on this island every year.

Every year we lose to suicide the equivalent of our deployment to Chad. This is not a new development. It has been happening for decades.

In 1998 the late Professor Kelleher, a psychiatrist, was tasked by the Irish Government to produce a report on the issue of suicide.He noted in his landmark report that he was irked by the constraints of his discipline. He noted that something sociological was happening to our young men -- and he was a medic.

In the Prime Time studio discussion with Noel Smyth of the charity 3Ts (Turning the Tide of Suicide) and Paula Addison, widowed by suicide, it was the latter who mentioned that the issue should be focused on men.

This is not an attack on Ms Shanley or, indeed, on RTE's flagship programme. Rather, it is a criticism of the muddled thinking that is treated as common sense on this issue.

This is normal broadcasting on this subject in Ireland. There was no conspiracy or pre-planning that discussed the objectives of the piece.

"We mustn't mention that suicide is mainly a killer of men!" That, of course, didn't happen. To discuss suicide in this Republic sensibly would require one to focus on the needs and pain of men. Some of those short-lived young men may have been victims of female power, especially in terms of access to children.

Had eight out of 10 suicides in this Republic for the last 20 years been female, would Prime Time's treatment of the subject have been far more informative?

Towards the end of the Prime Time film, the alarming figures for deliberate self-harm (DSH) were brought into the mix. DSH is appalling and is clearly a cry for help. However, lacerating the lower arms is not a suicide attempt.

If you throw all these in together then you get nice, comforting gender symmetry.

I spoke on the subject of effective suicide prevention at a health conference in Charleville, Co Cork, in January 2009.

The other two speakers at the conference were perfect examples, almost as if it had been scripted, of what to do if you had seriously thought about preventing suicide and what to do if you were just muddling through.

One speaker was from the Scottish "Choose Life" campaign, and the other was an academic from our own National Suicide Research Foundation.

In Scotland the Choose Life campaign has met with no small degree of success in reducing that country's suicide rate.

The Scottish campaign was mentioned on the Prime Time programme by one of the contributors.

Crucially, the people in the Choose Life campaign aggressively target young men. They go to where lads congregate and speak their language.

The campaign has enlisted the help of the Scottish soccer clubs and governing bodies. The results have been impressive and the suicide rate there has fallen.

It is very early days, but it is encouraging.

One of the more impressive information products was an A5 flier in club colours of the stadium being targeted. The back of the leaflet copied the back of the club's shirt, and had the traditional substitute number "12" and the name "Life".

There is, of course, no substitute for life.

There is also no substitute for clear thinking on this life and death issue.

The Scottish campaign, for its first few years, was led by Edinburgh man Dougie Patterson. A typical straight- talking Scot, at the conference in Charleville, Dougie shared an image from the new poster campaign about to hit Scotland.

It was an open sock drawer with the words "suicide" spelled out. It was clearly making the connection to men and suicide.

The next up was Dr Ella Arnesman of the National Suicide Research Foundation Ireland (NSRF). Her presentation, though excellent and well-researched, indicated the muddled thinking of the State on this subject. The figures for DSH were thrown in with the suicide figures.

The disparity between the Scottish approach and Irish approach could not have been more stark. Scotland has recognised that suicide is a gender issue and has been very straight about that.

The Irish public information campaign on suicide prevention has been about as focused as putting up posters advertising cervical cancer screening in men's toilets.

After the conference I asked Dr Arnesman if, for example, the NSRF had looked at being an unmarried father with difficulties over access to a child as a possible issue in suicide among young males. I had come across this factor time and again when I was researching my book.

One young man in particular, I recalled, had taken his own life on his child's birthday. The child's mother had not allowed him to see his daughter since she was an infant.

Dr Arnesman said that the foundation had not considered this as a factor. That was January 2009. I hope they have looked at this issue since then. Again, no one in the NSRF sat down to deliberately exclude this subject. It just doesn't come into the collective consciousness of the organisation.

One of the talking heads on the Prime Time film was Professor Kevin Malone of UCD. He mentioned "the youth" when discussing the suicide death toll.

Until this society starts to get a proper perspective on suicide, our young men will continue to needlessly die every year.

Hundreds of them.

Every year.

Time to get Scottish.

Time to get real.

Phil Mac Giolla Bhain is the author of 'Preventable Death: The scandal of male suicide in modern Ireland'

Sunday Independent

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