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Carol Hunt: Suicide isn't 'Somebody's Else's Problem', it is ours

WHAT'S wrong with us? Are we all suffering from what psychologists call a "normalcy bias"? Where we go about our business, eyes turned sideways, refusing to acknowledge what's happening under our noses? Or perhaps some of us are down with a nasty dose of SEP (Somebody Else's Problem) syndrome?

Even when faced with the facts we say; "Good Lord, that's only terrible", and shake our heads as if it were all occurring thousands of miles away, in a place we can only scarcely believe exists.

In case you're unsure what I'm talking about, it's the exponential surge in mental distress, chronic mental illness and, particularly, the relentless rise in deaths by suicide, currently taking place, yes, before our eyes.

Last Monday, Terence Casey, coroner for south Kerry, had six inquests for suicides before him. Six. In one day. In tiny south Kerry.

As Mr Casey said: "There was a time when I might have one, or two, suicides out of maybe six inquests on a day, but now it's becoming rampant. I never before had six in one sitting". All the deaths by suicide were male -- the youngest was 14. Fourteen.

But surely that must be some other Ireland and not the one where mental health budgets continue to be slashed. On Wednesday, on RTE's Morning Ireland programme, an obviously distressed Des Kavanagh (general secretary of the Psychiatric Nurses Association) discussed the deaths of two patients by suicide in mental health facilities in Dublin and Kerry last week. He said that in mental health "acute beds have been cut and cut and cut", that there has been a reduction of "a quarter of the total number of nursing posts in psychiatry", and that "we've been the worst hit of any frontline service in this country".

Consequently, Des Kavan-agh is a fan of the old, paternalistic style of psychiatric

nursing, where patients share large dormitories and staff control their treatment. Because the "libertarian approach", as Mr Kavanagh put it, is now demanded by patients and advocacy groups alike; as patients reside in single rooms and demand a dignified say in their treatment, the lack of staff and money needed for this type of care is putting some patients -- and no doubt staff -- at great risk.

Mr Kavanagh's comments terrified me. When many years ago I ended up in a psychiatric ward -- yes, on suicide watch -- I shrank from the horror of the communal dorm. The woman in the bed next to me was chain smoking -- I was certain she'd set the worn-out curtains between us alight; the old lady opposite was alternating between loud recitals of the rosary and screaming obscenities to attract the attention of the nurse.

Without meaning to sound trite, I knew that to be forced to stay in such an atmosphere would drive me stark raving mad. I was categorised with a stigmatised illness within five minutes of meeting a psychiatrist, never offered talk therapy and made take two types of medication, one of which I felt was unsuitable for me. A case of psychiatric wham, bam, thank you, ma'am.

I had hoped that this style of cheap "care" was on the way out, but Mr Kavanagh's assessment of the clash between the new humane philosophy and the pitiful monies allotted to mental health care shows that our Government -- and consequently ourselves, (they represent us) -- would prefer to wipe the arses of senior bond-holders, European top brass and powerful union bosses than care for our own distressed people.

Meanwhile on that far-off island called, eh, Ireland, official statistics show that 525 people died from suicide last year, a seven per cent increase on the year before, with men accounting for 84 per cent of deaths. And anyone with half an eye out for the truth knows that these statistics are far lower than the actual, real figures. They don't take account of coroners, who, because of the stigma involved, prefer to protect the family involved and assign the term 'accidental death' to what was indisputably a suicide. Nor do they include the many single vehicle road deaths which are, in some cases, also deliberate suicides masquerading as traffic accidents -- again, one must presume, in order to protect family from stigma.

And really, who can blame them?

Results of a survey last week (commissioned by News-talk and the Irish Countrywoman's Association) on mental health showed that while 84.3 per cent of those questioned agreed with the statement "Mental illness is an illness like any other", 87.4 per cent simultaneously thought that there was "a stigma in Ireland about discussing mental health issues".

So, the vast majority believe that mental illness is like any other illness, yet the vast majority also believe that there's a huge stigma involved in talking about it. Which is rather ironic when one considers that the "talking cure" can be very effective for many sufferers.

It would be funny if it weren't so desperately serious. If people weren't dying of shame; including the shame that they can't pay bills, get a job, support their family, cover their mortgage, discuss their problems.

Research director Ella Arensman (National Suicide Research Foundation) said of a recent study on male suicide rates in Cork city that she'd never seen such a strong correlation between economic difficulties and mental health.

In a recent paper called Debt and Depression (Economic Journal) Dr John Gathergood reported that people struggling to pay loans are "three times more likely to have mental health problems". More severe mental health effects, he said, are found among people who are late with housing or rent payments, particularly those with arrears on their mortgage or those in negative equity.

And commenting on the Newstalk/ICA survey, national president Liz Hall said. "The financial implications of the recession and the levels of emigration have severely impacted the lives and mental health of our members and all Irish families."

With more than 308,000 people currently out of work in Ireland, with the country losing 1,000 jobs a week; with 107,700 mortgages (and rising) in distress; with between 60 and 65 per cent of mortgages in negative equity; with 1.82 million people left with less than €100 in their pockets when the household bills have been paid, it would seem beyond doubt that many of us, our friends, our neighbours, our loved ones, are at risk.

Strangely, our Government continues along with its normalcy bias, giving the impression that the rise in mental distress and deaths by suicide is clearly Somebody Else's Problem.

Sunday Independent