World Suicide Prevention Day
By Derek Chambers
Over 100 hundred years ago the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote, in relation to suicide rates, that “what proves…that poverty does not have the…effect attributed to it is the case of Ireland where the peasants live such wretched lives”. A lot has changed since good old Emile’s book Le Suicide was published.
It’s true that Ireland had a low official suicide rate in the past – partly (but not totally) accounted for by conservative recording practices. It’s likely that despite considerable poverty in traditional rural Ireland there were many forces and factors that protected against suicide, including strong family relationships, community and a strong allegiance to the Catholic church’s moral monopoly. It’s well documented now that our suicide rate escalated as our economy grew dramatically in the Celtic Tiger years. The reasons for this increase in rates during the 1990s include increased individualism and a weakening of the ties that bound individuals to society – traditional family units, the church, traditional work practices and entrenched gender roles.
Up until 2009, last year, the highest number of suicides reported in any given year was 519 back in 2001. The figures recently announced for 2009 are higher again at 527. What’s important to underline is that these figures are provisional and will almost certainly be revised upwards. The common denominator between the rise during the 1990s and the extremely worrying figures released for 2009 is the dynamic of change. Sadly, with any significant social or economic transition, upheaval at a societal level can have a tragic impact at the level of individual lives.
Cold, stark statistics can sometimes appear to de-personalise the terrible tragedy of suicide. However, these statistics are an important indicator of what’s going on around us. Durkheim, as a sociologist, was among the first to establish suicide as a social, rather than purely medical, problem. His work over 100 years ago has contributed to the very concept of ‘public health’.
There is much we still don’t know about suicide in Ireland. One thing we do know, however, is that many, maybe more than half of all suicides, have not been next or near traditional health services in the time leading up to their deaths. We also know that everyone who has died by suicide was part of a community, a social group, sometimes maybe an online community.
For sure, the challenge of suicide prevention rests with all of us. The leadership in suicide prevention, however, rests with the State. In many sectors of social and economic life a case can be made for a liberal approach where market forces dictate and life obeys the rules of supply and demand. This is not the case in suicide prevention. Moral leadership is required to coordinate and consolidate the well-meaning efforts of everyone interested in supporting efforts to prevent suicide. Sadly, at the moment all we have is well thought-out suicide prevention strategy (I was involved in it so accusations of bias are completely fair) but a lack of vision (interest?), from the highest office, in order to make a real difference. Worse still, there would seem to be something disingenuous about the announcement of additional money for suicide prevention last week when all of that money was ear-marked for projects that applied for Dormant Accounts funding over two years ago.
I’ve been around long enough now to recognise patterns in lobbying around suicide prevention and attention paid to this terrible human and social tragedy. I imagine it won’t be too long before we have our third national strategy for prevention. We must now hope that each time the issue of suicide prevention makes it onto the public agenda we shout a little louder than the last time and that the government finally takes real ownership of its responsibility for public mental health. To make that happen we all have a role.
Incidentally, Durkheim is sometimes portrayed as a stern, detached, academic obsessed with numbers and the establishment of ‘facts’. It’s less well-known however that, like many of us, Durkheim was personally affected by suicide at a young age when his best friend in school took his own life. In his own way, Durkheim was motivated by a strong personal desire to prevent suicide. He helped bring the issue into the public, social domain. Let’s keep it there.