John Masterson: 'Are we capable of understanding suicide?'
When I was a child, which is not today or yesterday, suicide was either not spoken of, or was spoken of in hushed tones. It was a crime, hence the verb 'commit'. It was a sin in the eyes of the church and that had consequences for believers, which was pretty much everybody back then. Great lengths were gone to in order to hide the truth and so statistics on the number of people taking their life were notoriously unreliable.
A lot has changed in a few decades. Today suicide is discussed on radio, on television, over cups of tea and at fundraisers all over the country. Once there was only the Samaritans, founded by Chad Varah, an Anglican priest in 1953, to help people in crisis. Today, there is a large number of registered charities, and the HSE, in Ireland dealing with suicide awareness, offering counselling, running courses, and fundraising. Some, but not all, publish their financial details on their websites. I perused various websites and looked at lists of the signs of suicide and they were not particularly helpful. It all seems very well meaning, though, as with many other walks of life, I have frequently queried the need to set up yet another charity rather than support ones already doing the job.
I have thought for some time now that one of the unintended consequences of all this awareness-raising and understanding and support is that people are now conscious of taking their own life as an option to a much greater degree than they ever were previously. The suicide figures have remained stubbornly high. The number of road fatalities has dropped from 365 in 2006, when the Road Safety Authority was founded, to 149 last year. In 2006 there were 460 suicides, and the figure for 2016 was 399 having reached a high of 554 in 2011. And it is an open secret that at least some of the road fatalities have all of the hallmarks of suicide but are not classified as such. Such figures are never 100pc reliable but they do give a good idea of trends and are probably more accurate now than a generation ago.
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There are times when I prefer the old fire and brimstone approach to the modern touchy feely understanding approach. People who are contemplating taking their life need to hear loud and clear the consequences of their actions. That those left behind will be angry, bewildered, hurt and will have great difficulty coming to terms with the act of their loved one. There will be sadness combined with people saying "what a waste of a life" and that he or she "had so much to live for". If the person thought they were doing the world a favour, and that family and friends would be better off without them, they were usually wrong.
The particularly tragic change over the last generation has been the increase in young people taking their lives. When I was at school no one had ever heard of a young suicide. Today almost every secondary school pupil does. And not only do they know of one person. They will also tell you about the others who copied in the following months. Teenagers will offer their own theories as to why. According to a Unicef report we have the fourth highest teenage suicide rate in the EU/OECD.The male female ratio is still around 4 to 1. There is a disturbing increase in young mothers in straitened circumstances so that we are now three times the European average and that group for the first time equals men in their age group. Alcohol is regularly mentioned.
Many who took their lives were drunk at the time, or had difficulties with alcohol and drugs. It did strike me that if all of the money spent on suicide awareness was immediately transferred to target adolescent drinking and drug treatment programmes, a great deal more lives might be saved. With the exception of terminally ill people who want to choose their time to go in the company of loved ones, I cannot personally imagine a situation so desperate that it is not worth giving the future a chance.