At the beginning of February, figures revealed by the UK’s Office for National Statistics showed that Northern Ireland had the highest rate of suicide in the United Kingdom. In the UK as a whole, 17 people take their own lives every day.
The headlines were depressingly familiar. Northern Ireland, it seems, has always had a macabre “special relationship” with suicide. Why is this the case, and what can we do?
Some blame social and economic deprivation. More people appear to take their own lives in working class areas, where opportunities are rare and hope is scarce. Others point toward the mental legacy of the Troubles. According to the BBC in 2014, one in five people from Northern Ireland show signs of possible mental health problems, whilst the numbers of middle-aged people dying by suicide is particularly high. We all know of an older relative or friend whose memories are marked indelibly by some of the things they seen during what was one of the most tumultuous periods in our history. This excellent article from The Atlantic’s Lyra McKee sheds some light on the influence that the Troubles continues to hold on our collective consciousness, and how their legacy still pervades life here today.
When statistics like these are released, the public is adamant that something must be done. New funding for mental health initiatives was promised as a result of these lamentable figures — and rightly so. In times like this, however, I am reminded that whilst everybody wants change, not many people want to change their own behavior or perceptions.
We can throw money at the problem all day long, but money can’t change culture. In Northern Ireland, we are still not comfortable talking about our mental health, even with our closest friends and family. We are afraid of being seen as weak, or incapable, or worried about being a burden to loved ones.
The truth is, we all get down. Stresses of our job, our relationships, our family weigh heavily on our shoulders. Sometimes we all lie awake at night and wonder how we’ll face the morning. But if you’re stuck in a rut, if you feel like there’s no way out, just try to talk to someone. That may seem an obvious suggestion, and I will be the first to admit that there are more qualified people than me who will be addressing this problem. From my experience though, sharing your troubles with a loved one is the first step towards recovery.
Until we treat mental illness with the same urgency and respect as its physical counterpart, statistics like these will continue. We all have a role to play, and it’s about time we started.
This article first appeared on ‘Huffington Post’ on 28 February 2016.