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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 22 May, 2019
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Column: When suicide hits the media, how do we deal with it?

A call to a Dublin radio station last week sparked debate over the public discussion of suicide, writes Derek Chambers. We should look at changing the conversation.

Derek Chambers

THE RISE IN Irish suicide rates in the 1990s has been described as stemming from “the historical experience of cultural collisions: collisions between the vestiges of traditional community and accelerated modern society.”*

Such collisions happen at times of considerable social change whereby older ways of life are becoming redundant but new ways of life have not yet begun, leading to a lack of moral consensus.

A similar treatment of suicide in modern Ireland was developed by Smyth and colleagues (2003) who described how “cultural change in Ireland may disorient people, how it may slowly unhinge them from traditional social values and supports that perhaps have never been known to have any explicit link to mental health or suicide”.

In 2013, we are once again experiencing seriously disruptive and unsettling social change driven largely by new economic circumstances. So many of us are now faced with either the reality or the prospect of our livelihoods being taken away while financial commitments can’t be abandoned. Similarly, while official figures don’t yet confirm it, there is a strong feeling based on anecdotal accounts that suicidal behavior is increasing. An increase in social problems is often symptomatic of social change and, in turn, we need to figure out and negotiate new ways of talking about these problems, including suicide.

Crisis in public

The events last week, when a suicidal crisis was played out in public, live on air, sparked a wave of public discussion on suicide and mental health. Private troubles had truly become the subject of public concern and permission was granted for a public conversation. When these conversations take place, there is an opportunity to increase our understanding of the cultural context of suicidal behaviour and communicate hopeful and positive messages to each other as we try to make sense of what’s going on in our society. Does this happen?

There are many voices speaking on this issue, but who is listening? At times like this we need to think about those around us who may be going through a tough time and the impact of our public conversation on how they’re feeling. We should reflect and ask questions about how we should discuss these issues; whether we should discuss them at all; would we benefit from a short-term media blackout on the subject of suicide?

What’s most likely is that positive conversations with hopeful messages will help. Many people in communities throughout Ireland are experiencing tough times and if we can foster a culture that encourages people to reach out and talk to each other then maybe we can begin to help each other through these tough times.

Change the conversation

We’ve been here before, as have many societies across the world. A few years ago a suicide prevention worker in Alaska set herself the task of changing the conversation about suicide in the village where she worked. Her strategy was to build cultural awareness that would allow young villagers to connect the past to the present in a meaningful way, facilitating a deeper understanding of contemporary life.

The idea behind her strategy was that a more positive, better informed conversation about culture can help to bridge the alienating gap between the generations and enhance social cohesion in order to face up to challenges in a shared, purposive and positive way. The entire premise of this approach is based on a conception of community members as meaningful social actors, constructing a healthier, more positive cultural understanding of life. The alternative approach represents the path of least resistance and might be characterised by a morbid focus on individual, private tragedies.

In Ireland in 2013, we are where we are. Understanding how we got here is important, but more important is figuring out where we’re going, what kind of society we’re building towards. Given all of the negative conversation ab0ut online communication and the sometimes hopeless conversations about mental health maybe now is a good time and here is a good place to come together and change the conversation in Ireland.

Even though it might not always feel like it, there is a lot we can do to help each other – encouraging hope and belief based on a shared understanding of Irish society might be a good place to start. We’re good at talking, we’re good at nurturing a sense of community and we care about those around us. Let’s begin to foster those positive qualities.

Derek Chambers is the director of programmes and policy for Inspire Ireland. Inspire runs reachout.com, a website to help young people get through tough times with information anxiety, depression, mental health and well-being.

*Keohane and Chambers, 2003

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, as well as reachout.com you can also contact the following organisations:

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