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Wednesday 6 December 2023 Dublin: 7°C
Klearchos Kapoutsis via Flickr

Column ‘Even the word itself, suicide, can be difficult to speak’

We should remember those we have lost to suicide – and the best way is to make sure we’re tackling the issue as a country, writes Derek Chambers.

IT IS WORLD Suicide Prevention Day today, but what does that mean?

More than anything, this a time to remember and reflect on the lives of those we’ve lost to suicide. It’s also a time to take inspiration and courage from that reflection as we go about our day to day lives, hopefully more aware of our fellow human beings and how they might be feeling.

So much has been written about suicide but French philosopher Albert Camus got to the heart of the matter when he claimed that “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide”. There is little else in human experience that can torment us the way the experience of suicide bereavement does. Even the word itself, suicide, can be difficult to speak – less and less because of the social stigma (although that remains) but because it’s a scary and challenging word. But, the more we talk about it in the context of hope, mindful of our shared humanity, the easier it will be for someone going through a tough time to reach out for support.

Each life lost to suicide tells a story of unique individual and social circumstances coming together in a perfect storm with a tragic outcome leaving loved ones searching for answers. Against this background, the task of preventing suicide is sometimes guided more by a strong desire to ‘do something’ in the face of such a complex and unpredictable human behaviour than by clear knowledge of what we know for sure will make a difference. Perhaps this is why such a diverse collective of individuals and agencies gather together under the banner of suicide prevention and why we say that “suicide prevention is everyone’s business”.

There is a growing acceptance that no one area of health, education or social practice can be responsible for preventing suicide and this has been acutely highlighted by the undoubted impact our current financial trauma is having on our public mental health. This is as it should be. There really are many ways we can help each other through crisis and many people who are better placed than the traditional guardians of our mental health who can, and do, make an incredible difference in everyday settings ,from the football coach to a teacher, or someone’s best friend.

Everybody’s business

If we accept the proposition that suicide prevention is everyone’s business we need to acknowledge the task facing our National Office for Suicide Prevention. Many countries do not have an equivalent structure in place for considered reasons, opting instead to hand responsibility for suicide prevention to mental health services. This approach is too narrow, unless it is balanced by a commitment to mental health promotion (primary prevention) in other areas of public life to complement prevention activity aimed at people with known risk factors for suicidal behaviour.

The approach we have adopted in Ireland is to provide that central focal point for the coordination of all suicide prevention activity in the form of the NOSP. It’s hard to know if this is the best approach. On the one hand, a dedicated office can facilitate that collective of diverse agencies from the voluntary and community sectors and provide guidance and support for people that are motivated to make a difference. On the other hand, a dedicated office deflects attention from government departments and public institutions that have responsibility in this area.

This is a crucial time for the NOSP considering the ongoing changes in leadership as the search begins again for a new director of the office. The HSE and the Department of Health now have a big decision to make on the future of suicide prevention in this country. The NOSP, as the coordinating agency responding to the most emotive and challenging public concern of our time, needs strong and stable leadership. The alternative is to prioritise suicide prevention across all government departments and public agencies – but this is a longer term strategy that we’re probably not ready for.

The occasion of World Suicide Prevention Day allows us to highlight these challenges in our national response to suicide. On a human level though, let’s not forget those we have lost to suicide, and let’s be extra vigilant in looking out for each other. We can all make a difference.

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

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