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Dublin: 21°C Wednesday 4 August 2021

Column: 'I saw him pull himself up onto the railing of the footbridge'

Mental health issues still carry stigma and shame in our society – why? The real shame belongs to those who pretend these problems don’t exist, writes Aisling Twomey.

Aisling Twomey

NEAR THE END of the street where I grew up, there is a pedestrian footbridge. The footbridge and the street it leads on to are poorly lit and poorly maintained with small amounts of local traffic but little else. It plays host to gangs of teenagers drinking, gangs of adults drinking and features violent graffiti and illegally dumped waste. For as long as I can remember, my mother has favoured avoiding this bridge but it’s a shortcut to the city centre so the entire family uses it.

My mother has always told me to avoid the bridge at night time. That’s her limit – don’t cross the bridge at night. It’s the sort of place that lends itself easily to accidents and easier still to menace. I have always been aware of its troubling potential.

On Friday night, I returned from work in Dublin for the weekend. I got off the bus and stopped off to vote in City Hall. I was laden down with bags and I was exhausted. I had an internal argument with myself over whether to take the gloriously short trip over the footbridge, or whether to take the long walk around. My phone battery was dead and I just wanted to be at home. I took the shortcut and walked up onto the bridge.

I saw him pull himself up onto the railing

The initial part must have taken only seconds but I remember the details so clearly. I remember the orange glow of the single streetlamp reflected softly by the wet ground. I remember the swoosh of the cars driving underneath me. I came from the darkness and he didn’t see me – but I did see him. I remember taking in his white shirt and his tattered Converse.

I saw him pull himself up onto the railing of the footbridge. Realisation dawned suddenly and I felt my heart try to leave my body. I watched him take a big breath and lean forward over the road below. I shouted. I’m not sure what I said but he wasn’t expecting me and I interrupted him. He reached out and grabbed the suspension wire – the only thing that stopped his fall to a terrible end.

He was a teenager, drunk and miles from his home, attempting to take his own life not two minutes from the house I grew up in.

After I got him down, when he was finished crying, when he stopped shaking, when we were finished talking and when I knew he was going right to the front door of his mother’s house accompanied by a friend, I got home and found a phone charger and rang the local Garda station, which is a two minute walk, at most, from that footbridge.

‘A Monday morning type of issue’

The sergeant in the public office told me that really, this was “a Monday morning type of issue,” because the pubs and clubs were just about to start major business hours. He explained that I had “already dealt with it,” so there was no point in him taking it further; he wouldn’t send anyone in that direction. He told me that, really, the best thing I could do would be to write a letter on Monday, when officers weren’t busy.

I don’t understand how a member of the Gardaí neglected to give 100 per cent priority to a child who felt, even for a moment, that he didn’t want to live. How foolish of me, to call in a suicide attempt on a Friday night just as the clubs were opening.

495 people took their own lives in Ireland in 2010; 82 per cent of these were male and the highest rate was among males aged 20-24. Further, Cork is a county that sees a higher rate of suicide. Ireland is a small country. Everyone is affected by the sheer tragedy of suicide and we have too many stories about young men taking their own lives without adding another one to it.

It is so easy to presume that this boy would have stopped at the last minute, that he wouldn’t have jumped – but it is that exact presumption that costs us more lives each year.

Overwhelming stigma

The stigma of mental health problems and suicide is overwhelming. Too often, we make reference to the “lunatics” and “crazies”, without realising that significant mental health struggles by those who live with us and love us and never say a word about it, because it defies expectation of normality, because it seems wrong, because it’s not physical so it’s hard to see and understand. Those assumptions are wrong and struggling with mental health shouldn’t be about shame and hiding – but it is.

Whether that child – because he was a child – would have jumped off that bridge or not, I don’t know. What I do know is that life for him is a struggle, and whether he’s a Saudi prince or a scared kid from Cork, it doesn’t matter. Depression, isolation and suicidal feelings don’t wait for convenient times or convenient people.

Are we really willing to bet on the life of a human being?

Presuming that someone “won’t do it” isn’t the right answer and it carries with it a huge and potentially fatal risk. In fact, it answers entirely the wrong question. Instead of asking if he’ll really kill himself, we should be asking how he arrived at this point. I wondered afterwards what brought him to this moment and how he felt his options had become so limited. I wonder now whether he knows that I’ll think of him always and I’ll hope that he makes it to see the good parts of life.

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Unfortunately, we remain willing to bargain the life of a human being on a presumption that they can’t possibly feel bad enough to end it all – even when the hundreds of funerals each year should tell us otherwise. When a child feels that he can’t cope in this world anymore, even for a moment, there are hefty, uncomfortable questions to be answered.

The real shame and blame is ours, because we pretend that these questions don’t exist at all.

Aisling Twomey works in political communications and has a Masters in Criminal Justice from University College Cork. Her journalism work is available at aislingtwomey.me.

Thursday 10 October marks World Mental Health Day.


About the author:

Aisling Twomey

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