Monday 16 September 2019

'The old man broke down in tears. We were the first people he'd spoken to in 6 weeks' - Volunteers saving people in crisis

Early on Saturday a 200,000-strong army of Darkness into Light walkers made their way through towns and villages across the country to deliver the message: 'Your life matters'. Our reporter talks to those at the coalface of an ongoing battle

Lucy O'Hara (32) from Corbally, a member of Limerick Suicide Watch.
Lucy O'Hara (32) from Corbally, a member of Limerick Suicide Watch.

Kathy Donaghy

Four nights a week a group of volunteers assemble at Limerick City's Docker's Monument, a sculpture that celebrates the camaraderie that existed between men who earned their living by might.

Donning personal flotation bags and waterproof jackets and armed with binoculars and communication equipment, they begin their evening's work. These volunteers rely heavily on one another and their camaraderie has seen them through many tough nights.

They never know what a night will bring but the reason they're out in all weathers is to save lives; to intervene and stop someone taking their own life.

Limerick Suicide Watch was set up in May 2016, a year when provisional figures estimated there were 400 deaths in Ireland by suicide. Over the last two years they've had 180 interventions. All volunteers have completed suicide intervention skills training provided by the HSE. The city's suicide watch volunteers work in teams of three, with eight to ten volunteers out on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights. Often they walk 10k a night along the Shannon River or cycle 20k if they're on bikes.

Thirty-two-year-old Lucy O'Hara would often notice the rescue helicopter from Valentia Island overhead and wonder about what happened to the person they were called out to help. "I wanted to do something to help. I would have known families affected by suicide myself. Our goal is to help as many people as we can and save families from losing someone they love," says Lucy.

In some cases when they're on patrol, people will come up to them just to have a chat. In other cases team members observe someone who is displaying behaviour that means they may need help.

"You know by their demeanour, by how they are reacting to things. This work teaches you how to talk to someone. When we meet someone we automatically say 'how are you?' Some people may not react. The hardest thing for us is to ask a person 'are you suicidal?'" says Lucy.

In some cases two volunteers may have to physically restrain a person at the river's edge while the third volunteer calls emergency services. Sometimes they can talk someone out of entering the water. Lucy says they never know what's going to happen on any given night.

"There was an elderly man once and when we approached him he didn't want to talk to us. He had his back turned to us but the minute we asked if he was OK, he broke down in tears. We were the first people he had spoken to in six weeks. He was very lonely. He had nobody," she says.

"What we do is get a person talking for 15 minutes or for an hour and then we'd phone someone they want us to contact. A lot of families haven't a clue what has been going on because people hide how they feel," says Lucy.

On another occasion volunteers encountered a teenage girl who was very upset and distressed. When family members arrived, they had no idea the girl was feeling under so much pressure.

"We meet so many different people every night we go out. We meet people with different things going on in their lives. It might not be a big thing to you but it's everything to them. People just need to talk. They need to know it's OK to talk," says Lucy.

A year after Limerick Suicide Watch stopped a young man from taking his own life, a volunteer met his mother at an event. She introduced herself by throwing her arms around the team member.

'It's nice to hear those happy stories'

"She was so thankful her son had progressed. He was happy and he'd gone back to college and he had a girlfriend. Sometimes we might get an email from a family member. If we're out on patrol someone might come up and tell us something about a family member. It's nice to hear those happy stories".

Because of the nature of the work, after an intervention volunteers have a debriefing session. Counselling services are available to them and Lucy says the after care for them and support they get is great.

"It's not all doom and gloom," she says. "We meet people and we talk and we have the craic. The amount of support we get is unbelievable. People will come up and shake our hands and say 'thank you'. It's like they feel there's safety at night when we're out patrolling.

"We marshal every year at the Darkness Into Light walk. It's very touching - thousands of people are coming towards you from the angle we see it at. The silence is amazing," she says.

In the neighbouring county of Clare, Irish Coast Guard volunteer Thomas Doherty (pictured on cover) is no stranger to seeing people at the worst time of their lives. In his 30-something years with the Coast Guard he has intervened in 12 cases where people were suicidal.

Earlier in his life he'd been a fisherman; drift netting and fishing lobster pots. When someone went missing, searchers relied on local fishermen's knowledge for help and guidance. Helping out with searches brought him into the Coast Guard where he'd often get a call that someone was in distress.

"I just ask them straight 'are you thinking of self-harm?' I would chat away with them. Sometimes I can tell if they're acting suspicious - I just know. You learn to read the signs. They'd be watching to see if someone is watching them," says Thomas.

"First of all I ask them their name. Then I ask them if they are thinking of self-harm. I remember a lady in her 80s. She got out of a taxi and she was carrying a bag with her. I went up and asked her straight out. She began to cry. I gave her a hug and said 'come over and have a cup of tea or coffee'. She talked about things," he says.

The tip of the iceberg

"What we're seeing is the tip of the iceberg. A person may have been on their own for days with nobody to talk to. When I gave that lady a hug I thought when was the last time she got a hug. Are families giving one another hugs? It's come to the point where we can't give a hug to someone - maybe that's what they want.

"People do need to be listened to. I look at them and I don't be looking away. There's a lot in that; it shows you're interested in them. They can see you are connected with them. The connection is not there today. If you look at people they're caught up in their phones. There's nothing in social media I think," says Thomas.

He remembers meeting a woman whose son went missing some years ago.

"She wanted to walk in the last place he walked. I met her and I took her to where he would have walked. I said 'you do whatever you want to do. If you want to talk, talk. That was two years ago and she keeps in touch. Another lady lost a daughter - she likes to come up on the anniversary to walk in the last place her daughter walked."

Music, walking and talking help Thomas to remain upbeat about life but he says it's always "a bit of a downer when someone escapes the net".

"I did the Darkness into Light last year and I feel like you're helping an organisation that's helping people. You watch people and they're ten foot tall - they feel like they've achieved something," he says.

Over 200 miles away, volunteers Pat Carlin and Stephen Twells are on duty in Foyle Search and Rescue (FSR) HQ on the banks of Lough Foyle.

Set up in 1993 the organisation's main priority is suicide prevention and river rescue as well as providing safety cover for river events run by the city council and other local bodies.

Last year FSR volunteers rescued 21 people who had entered the river deliberately and were involved in 129 interventions.

Stephen, a store manager with Boots chemist in the city, joined the organisation 17 years ago after he got chatting with volunteers about the work they did. He describes the rescue HQ as his second home. "You couldn't do this work if you didn't love it, if you didn't care. It's not a career choice - it's a vocation," he says.

"For volunteers on duty at night it can be traumatic and stressful when you're dealing with someone in a vulnerable state. But the benefits outweigh the drawbacks - you're helping someone at their lowest level," says Stephen.

"You have an instinct about a person you meet - sometimes you can tell from their body language. Sometimes they're avoiding eye contact which is unnatural. You just get a gut feeling that something is not right with this person," he says.

One of the hardest things, he says, is having a conversation with someone you've never met before and asking them are they thinking about taking their own life.

'You need to have the courage'

"You need to have the courage to say that. Sometimes a person will say 'yes, I am'. Sometimes they'll say no.

Most people will open up to us but that's only because we've taken the time to ask them. A lot of times no one has ever asked them," he says.

Stephen says sometimes the work means physically restraining someone until emergency services arrive. Sometimes it's pulling someone back but "sometimes it's just a matter of putting a hand gently on their shoulder. Three-quarters of the time it's an easy coax to gently take someone back," he says.

In the last 15 months ten people have lost their lives to the River Foyle but despite the nature of the work he does, Stephen says it's not all doom and gloom.

"There's a really good team spirit in here. The main thing that keeps us going is that we know we're making a difference. There's a lot of team-work and training and we have a laugh. When it gets serious, we get on with the job."

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