Monday 17 June 2019

“We’ve had children as young as six”: A Pieta House clinician describes how suicide can affect anyone

Suicide. It’s a word that’s often associated with negative connotations or social stigmas but it’s something that can touch any family or group of friends.

Darkness Into Light, proudly supported by Electric Ireland, has really captured the public consciousness with its message of hope for anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts or engaged in self harm. The annual 5k walk is the flagship fundraiser for Pieta House, which has helped over 40,000 people since 2006.

There’s still time to register for this year’s Darkness Into Light, which will take place at almost 200 venues at 4.15am on Saturday, May 11.

Ahead of the upcoming walk, we spoke to Pieta House clinician and psychotherapist Rionach Campbell about suicide, what Pieta House does, and the importance of Darkness Into Light.

Pieta House clinician and psychotherapist, Rionach Campbell

“Every walk of life, every cultural background, every age group”

Pieta House provides free counselling, a helpline for those who are suffering from suicidal thoughts or engaging in self harm, and support for those bereaved by suicide. Suicidal thoughts can affect people in any spectrum of society, as Rionach points out.

“It’s every walk of life, every cultural background, every age group,” she says. “Suicide as a thought process or as a place to be affects everybody. It doesn’t matter what part of society you’re from.”

A lot of Rionach’s work is focused on children or adolescents and it’s hard not to be a little shocked at the thought of young children experiencing these thoughts.

“We’ve had children as young as six, seven and eight,” Rionach adds.

“Particularly with the younger clients, I find it so sad that they would be here for such a short time and reach a point where they feel that they cannot continue.”

Whether dealing with young children or adults, an essential part of Pieta House counselling sessions is creating a space where clients can talk and begin to find a way out of their current situation.

“One of the main things that I aim for as a therapist is just providing a safe, secure, contained space where they know that they’re not being judged. And where they can say what they need to say and discuss and talk about all those inner pains, fears, thoughts and also events that have happened in their lives that have left them in a place where they feel that they can’t continue.”

Pieta House works with its clients to give them the survival tools they need and to help them to address any underlying issues that they’re dealing with, learn the coping skills that they need and develop healthy habits.

“The intention of the sessions in Pieta is really to bring down the level of reasons for dying and increase the reasons for living,” explains Rionach.

She says that research points to the fact that many people with suicidal thoughts experience ambiguity right up until the end. They work on empowering their clients in their sessions and giving them the skills to consider all their options in a crisis. 

“It’s about creating a space that makes it OK for them to use the vocabulary, to use the words, to say suicide, to say I don’t want to be alive, and to look at the reasons why. So often, as people are struggling emotionally, they’re still conscious of not upsetting, alienating or scaring those close to them. They keep it all inside. They can’t talk about it. Coming into Pieta allows them to use the words that are inside their heads that they can’t say to family or friends.”

Darkness Into Light is Pieta House's flagship fundraiser

The stigma and misconceptions around suicide

Public attitudes towards suicide in Ireland have changed in recent times as our understanding of mental health improves but there are still some damaging attitudes and misconceptions out there. It’s easy to forget that suicide in Ireland was only decriminalised in Ireland in 1993.

“There is still that stigma,” admits Rionach. “Amazingly, I still come across people who make that comment around suicide and self-harm – ‘Do you not think they’re looking for attention?’ People still refer to it as a selfish act.

“Ultimately, someone who has suicidal thoughts is in extreme pain. They’re in awful distress. They need to be given hope rather than criticism or punishment for their thoughts.

“As a clinician, I would say that it’s the killing of pain rather than the killing of self but if the pain is within, the thinking is not logical. If you’re thinking about it logically, you’re not going to understand why someone would choose to take their life.”

“Personally speaking, I think the biggest misconception is that the act is selfish. Somebody who is in desperate pain is not thinking about hurting anybody else because they’re feeling so hurt. They’re reached a place where they believe that they are the problem and that they are causing hurt.”

The stigma around suicide can also make it difficult for the families, friends or loved ones who are bereaved by suicide. It can be particularly difficult due to media coverage, questions that can never be answered, the fear or judgement, or even well-meaning but unhelpful comments from others.

Another important service that Pieta House provides is bereavement counselling sessions. They also have bereavement liaison officers that can make house calls to families who have been bereaved by suicide.

Participants at last year's Darkness Into Light in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. This year's event takes place on May 11

Getting behind Darkness Into Light

With 85pc of their funding coming through fundraising, events like Darkness Into Light are essential for Pieta House. Electric Ireland have sponsored the event since 2013 and their support has helped the event grow from 20 venues in 2013 to almost 200 this year.

Pieta House enjoys a close and long-standing relationship with Electric Ireland and ESB through the ESB Energy for Generations fund. A staff vote identified suicide, homelessness and education as three areas that staff most wanted to see the fund address. This fund has now invested more than €6.5m towards suicide prevention in Ireland since 2005.

“One of the things I really like about this year’s Electric Ireland ad for Darkness Into Light is that it really captures the fact that everybody can be affected by suicide,” says Rionach.

“Anybody can do this walk but the impact of doing this walk is huge.”

Rionach points out there’s always a great atmosphere at Darkness Into Light walks and that the sense of fun speaks to the walk’s message of hope. Every registration in a Darkness Into Light location across the country is an investment in hope.

“It’s just about being able to provide the service, making sure that there is somebody who can get out to a family. The funding from Darkness Into Light is something we hugely rely on to be able to keep the service open and to support everybody who’s been affected by suicide.

“From the bottom of our hearts, we’d like to thank all of the people who have got involved in Darkness Into Light.”

Rionach adds that they also see an increase in calls to Pieta House’s anonymous helpline before and after Darkness Into Light. As an event, it stimulates public discussion around suicide, tells people where to go for help and spreads the message of hope.

“Darkness Into Light reaches people because of the advertisements that Electric Ireland have done, because of clips on Facebook or the clips on media websites. If you only catch one person who goes ‘OK, the ambiguity is there, I’ll give them a call,’ that can make the difference.”

You can read about one Pieta House user’s experience here or find out more about how the money raised at Darkness Into Light can make a real difference to people’s lives here.

Electric Ireland are powering hope throughout the country, encouraging people to experience “The Power of Hope” at Darkness Into Light at 4.15am on Saturday, May 11. Register to walk across venues nationwide on the Darkness Into Light website.

If you need help, Pieta are there.

Call the 24/7 freephone helpline on 1800 247 247.

Text the word ‘Help’ to 51444 (standard text rates apply).

Sponsored by: EI

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