Saturday 20 January 2018

'Their nearest neighbour might be a mile away' - Coroner describes the effect of isolation on rural suicide rates

Terence Casey retired as Kerry coroner last week
Terence Casey retired as Kerry coroner last week

Rebecca Lumley

Changing social practices and increased isolation are causing more suicides among the older generation, a former Kerry coroner has said.

People who experience decreased social interaction are more susceptible to suicide in rural areas, where “the suicide rate has changed from the younger generation to the older generation,” according to Terence Casey, who retired as the coroner for Kerry east and south last week.

This comes after the release of new figures by mental health charity See Change, which show that 42pc of people in rural areas would try to conceal a mental health difficulty, 4pc higher than the national average.

Speaking to Independent.ie, Mr Casey said the older generation make “no attempt whatsoever to look for assistance” when experiencing mental health problems and attributes loneliness as the leading cause of the problem.

Mr Casey said: “I’d say that trends in lifestyle have changed dramatically in the older generation living in isolated areas. They used to go to the creamery every morning and meet their friends and have a chat. The postman used to come to their door, now he only goes to the end of the laneway.

“People used to go to the local pub, have a couple of Guinness and chat with their neighbour and go home. They can’t do that any longer because of the drink driving laws. So they’re now living in isolation and small problems which they dwell upon become great problems.”

He continued: “If you look at some of the areas where you’ve had suicides in the older generation, their nearest neighbour might be a quarter of a mile away, whereas in the urban areas their nearest neighbour is next door.

In some cases that Mr Casey has seen, it had taken weeks to discover the deaths of people living in isolated locations.

He said: “There was one man who died and only his dog kept him company. That gives you a broader idea of exactly how lonely people are. I mean not being missed for weeks and then to be found dead, decomposed.”

Mr Casey said that while he has seen the suicide rate increase in the older demographic, the opposite was true of young people. He attributes this to the work of Donal Walsh, a Kerry teenager who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He made national headlines in 2013 when he spoke out against suicide on The Saturday Night Show, hosted by Brendan O’Connor.

While Mr Casey has witnessed the effects of isolation first hand in his locale, CEO of charity See Change, John Saunders believes the tight-knit feel of small communities may be just as harmful.

Speaking on Newstalk Breakfast this morning, Mr Saunders said that the high amount of people in rural areas who would hide a mental health difficulty may stem from the gossip-driven culture of rural communities.

He said: “We’re suggesting perhaps because rural areas are by definition smaller, more enclosed, have a higher sense of community spirit, people may have a sense that they don’t want their neighbours to know much about them as you might think.

“Rural environments are obviously environments with huge amounts of kinship and huge amounts of support required of each other and I think that’s probably one of the reasons, or the main reason behind this fear.”

He suggested that the pressure of the “everyone knows everyone” culture drives mental health sufferers into isolation and said that unwillingness to share personal information was “an Irish thing.”

He said: “It’s a cultural thing, it’s an Irish thing in a sense that we don’t want our neighbours to know our business. I think it’s highlighted in the community where you may be living within a couple of miles of a handful of families and you know those families very, very well because there’s not that many people around.

“So that’s the sense of isolation on the one hand, but on the other hand a very strong community bond which prevents people from speaking to each other about those issues.”

The figures cited by Mr Saunders were collected as part of See Change’s Green Ribbon campaign, which encourages discussion on the subject of mental health.

If you need to talk to someone, please contact the Samaritans in confidence on 116 123

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