The mystery of Ireland's youth suicides


Among the nations that make up the archipelago of Great Britain and
Ireland the suicide rate in Scotland is highest at 15.7 deaths per
100,000. The Republic of Ireland comes second at 12.5. Wales is 12 and
England is 9.9. The Republic, on the other hand, has the second highest
level of youth suicide in the world. New Zealand has the highest.
People in Ireland are beginning to scratch their heads and ask, “Why?”

A recent conference in Belfast addressed the issue of suicide prevention. What seemed to
emerge was a range of rather confused signals. Maintain the stigma said
one American speaker. Don’t talk about “committing suicide”, it’s
hurtful to the bereaved, said another – which seemed to be going in the
opposite direction.

A few days earlier an article on youth suicide in The Irish Times by a college chaplain, David Keating, wondered why all the study and
suicidology which was going on worldwide did not seem to be helping any
country solve the problem. “By focussing too much on systematic
approaches to suicide prevention, we have neglected or forgotten
something profoundly fundamental – the power of humans to keep each
other alive”, he wrote.

For him the balance between stigma and celebrity seemed to pose a
problem which had to be addressed. “Scarcely 30 years ago in Ireland, a
suicide funeral was a quiet and guilt-ridden affair with distraught
relatives left to grieve alone and in shame. Today a suicide funeral is
large and well-attended, with huge outpourings of grief, emotion and
tactile affection. Kind and memorable sentiments, unspoken before
death, are now generously spoken and shared by mourners of all ages
who, bound together by tragedy, will ensure the deceased will be
remembered.

“Among the mourners, a solitary life looks on. Perhaps feeling
insignificant or rarely noticed, maybe with no real prospect of
achievement or just tired of picking up the pieces of broken
relationships, this troubled mind wonders what’s the point of it all
and ‘since my life isn’t really going anywhere at least my death would
be noticed.’” The agenda is thus set for the “copycat” suicide.

But some strategies do work. David Litts, addressing the Belfast
conference, described how suicide levels in the US Air Force in the
1990s made a 40% jump to a level of 15 per 100,000. However, with a
series of measures – challenging the “macho culture”, organising better
family and community support, chaplaincy services – they succeeded in
bringing the incidence down 3.7 per 100,000.

The focus on chaplaincy services raises the issue of religion in the
context of suicide. The Belfast conference was also told of the very
significant difference between suicide rates in Northern Ireland and
the Irish Republic – 8.5 in the North. This was surprising. For many
years a great deal of attention has been paid to concerns about
psychological trauma, anxiety and depression in Northern Ireland in the
context of the sectarian and general conflict there. However, the
factor of religion may well have played a crucial role in keeping the
rate of suicide low. Serious religious commitment – across the
denominations is probably deeper in Northern Ireland than it is in the
South where religious practice is in decline, particularly among young
males.

A recent study reported by Dr Ciaran Clarke and others in an
international psychiatry journal raised the question of the
relationship between the “religiosity” of a society and the suicide
rate.

There were 439 suicides in the Irish Republic in 1999: 295 rural and
144 urban; 349 male and 90 female. In rural areas male suicides were
approximately four times higher than female suicides, whereas in urban
areas they were twice as high.

They noted that “It has been suggested since the 19th century that at
the community level a decline in religious observance and belief is
associated with an increased incidence of suicide. Temporal trends seem
to support such a link, and the complexities of the association are
being unravelled. There is evidence, for example, that not only
individual religious beliefs, but (in the case of men) the extent to
which attitudes are held by others, may modify the risk of suicide: men
are less likely to commit suicide in a religious society regardless of
their own attitudes towards religion.”

They suggest that “religious belief and practice might diminish suicide
risk by providing social support or by making the practice of suicide
morally repugnant. Furthermore they say that “there is evidence that
the protective effect of religiosity is mediated by the intolerance for
suicidal behaviour which it engenders.”

In their study Clarke and his colleagues cite the results of a 1999
population-based survey of religious beliefs and practice among 1,395
people divided according to age, gender, and urban-rural location and
compare it with rates of suicide. This shows that in the general Irish
population “religiosity” – which seems to include everything from
devout practice to fairly non-specific belief in God – is greater among
females than males. Given the six-fold difference in suicide rates in
Ireland between males and females, their overall conclusion – couched
in rigorous academic terms - is that these differing degrees of
religiosity among males and females may contribute to the disparity in
their suicide rates. “Since the gender difference in suicides is the
most salient feature of Irish suicide demographics, varying religiosity
between males and females may be significant.”

It would seem that pastoral care within the various denominations –
whether it be within the family, schools or by ministers of religion –
can play an important role in reducing the incidence of these
tragedies. A delicate but vital balance has to be kept between the need
to console the bereaved and maintaining an awareness of the
proscriptions attached to suicide and of the doctrines related to the
promises of eternal life. If the proscriptions and the promised eternal
rewards are lost sight of the stigma is undermined and, as David Litts
warned, suicide can become “an almost socially acceptable occurance” --
or even an acceptable solution to “a life which doesn’t really seem to
be going anywhere.”

Michael Kirke is a freelance writer in Dublin.

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