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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Spend more on mental health and save lives

Gay Byrne returned to our screens briefly last night with Ryan Tubridy. As he was finishing up Gay mentioned that this year the number of fatalities on the road are 23 below last years figure and 2007 was low by Irish standards. While this is no way compensation to any one who’s lost a loved one on an accident and I’m conscious of another death this week end in the county, it’s evidence that when the state gives the proper resources to a public service, the results follow. To be fair to Martin Cullen, one of his better decisions was finding a job a few years ago for Gaybo as Chairman of the RSA.

Road deaths used to be the major cause of death to under 25’s but not anymore. Moreover, the relative success of this campaign only highlights the state’s neglect in tackling what is now the main cause of death in this age group, namely self harm. Almost 30 years ago when I was in college a close friend who studied it told me the reality of the Irish figures as could be established then and I was shocked. Today it is unusual for a Coroner’s court in this country to hold a session without a case where a person has chosen to prematurely end their life. It’s usually described in local papers as “tragic” “unexpected” or “shocking”. These words are sufficient in a locality. There is no need for anymore. Few can understand the bleak pit of life that those contemplating such a course find themselves in.

The Samaritans is an organistion that was set up in 1953 by a young vicar in London who was concerned that those people with emotional distress who could be considering ending their own lives had no one to talk to. Now there are 202 branches throughout the UK & Ireland. Typically their experience is challenging our concept of those who contemplate ending their lives. People coping with job loss, bereavement, financial trouble, work stress, depression, alcohol or changed circumstances comprise most of their clients. The word term “death by suicide” has replaced “committed suicide”.

The National Office of Suicide Prevention is the states response to the issue. NOSP (2001) released data that shows 5 times more males die by suicide than females, 405 of all suicides occur in males under 30%. The time span between April and August usually brings the highest number of deaths.

Behind the statistics lies the reality of RNLI volunteers who search and retrieve remains in some cases after weeks, the garda who has to notify next of kin, the paramedics, fire fighters, and civil defence. My Labour colleague Cllr Bobby Ireton in Courtown Harbour is regularly called out to help end the agony of the wait for grieving relatives. In some diocese designated priests have been assigned the job of administering where remains were discovered after a death by suicide. In all cases there’s relatives, parents, siblings, loved ones and friends, all asking why and could they have done something?

Despite there being a strategy in place I wonder how well funded it is? I wonder how well it can cope with the present demand. Given what’s happening in the economy and the relative ignorance of the subject and I’m thinking of Bertie Ahern’s advice to economists who warned him of the consequence of his policies in 2007 to commit suicide and Jim McDaid’s 2002 use of the term “selfish bastards”, how well is it prepared to cope with what may possibly see a further increase in suicide levels into the future? I note that the budget for mental health is reduced further into 2009.

That means a greater reliance on voluntary services like the “Samaritans”. The increase in unemployment, financial pressure on mortgages and emotional turmoil caused by an economic downturn will impact on numbers contemplating suicide and I’m concerned that the state is not prepared for this. It should not be so. If the state can respond to road deaths in a co-ordinated manner why can it not do likewise with suicide? Labour is committed to increasing what we spend on mental health, especially in developing a preventative approach.

You can find out more about the Samaritans at If the issue dealt with in this post affects you please call 1850 609090. The nearest branch is in Waterford and can be contacted at 051-872114.

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