Address by Minister Tim O Malley, T.D., at the launch of the findings of a survey – Public Attitudes to Suicide commissioned by the Irish Association of Suicidology

I am delighted to be here today to launch the findings of the survey commissioned by the Irish Association of Suicidology on Public Attitudes to Suicide. This telephone survey was carried out throughout Ireland – North and South – and it provides an excellent opportunity to discuss the future direction of all-island suicide initiatives.

Anne Cleary will be speaking to you in relation to the detail of the Survey but I would just like to mention a few findings that I found particularly interesting. The similarities between public attitudes in both jurisdictions are evident. It is worrying to note that of those questioned, 53% in the South and 52% in the North, have not seen, read or heard any publicity in relation to suicide recently. As we know there are many voluntary organisations and statutory agencies working with people at risk of attempting or completing suicide but obviously we are all going to have to work harder at getting our message across.

The media play a very important part in raising awareness about suicide and suicide prevention and in changing the stigma and our attitudes to suicidal behaviour and to mental health. For journalists and editors, reporting on suicide presents a challenge. It can be an issue of public interest and it is clearly the responsibility of the reporter to convey the news. Indeed, there can be a positive aspect to reporting suicide, as debate may help to de-stigmatise the subject and provoke a wider discussion about the importance of strong emotional health. But research also shows that inappropriate reporting or photography can lead to copycat suicides. The media, therefore, has a responsibility to ensure that due consideration is given when reporting on news items of this nature.

The recently launched “Media Guidelines for the Portrayal of Suicide”, which was a collaboration between the Irish Association of Suicidology and the Samaritans, provide suggestions for journalists and writers, photographers and directors, working in television, radio, theatre, film, print and electronic media. The Guidelines aim to offer support in deciding how to approach what is ultimately one of the most difficult issues to write or speak about. They offer practical suggestions in relation to appropriate reporting of suicide; such as the use of appropriate language, including details of sources of information, the avoidance of simplistic explanations for suicide and the effect it can have on survivors of suicide.

As we are all aware, there was in the past a reluctance to even discuss the issue of suicide. Thankfully, this situation has now changed. In Ireland, North and South, the level of discussion and openness on mental health issues, including deliberate self harm and suicide has increased significantly.

Suicide affects all age groups and communities in our society. In fact, few people escape being touched by the devastating effects of suicidal behaviour in their lifetime and the emotional, social and practical repercussions of suicide are felt by family members, friends, neighbours and colleagues. One of the findings of this survey is that 74% of respondents in the South and 59% in the North knew someone who died by suicide. The majority of the respondents also indicated that one of the main reasons people took their own lives was because of depression or feelings of loneliness. Of course, there are many other reasons which include relationship difficulties, pressures and stresses of life, an inability to cope, bullying, low self-esteem, lack of confidence, high prevalence of alcohol problems and substance misuse, domestic abuse, poverty and inequality. This list is by no means exhaustive. The relationship between these factors and suicidal behaviour is complex and they should not be addressed in isolation.

The over-riding theme of our efforts to tackle the problem of suicide is collaboration. If we tackle suicide as a ‘one issue’ policy we will fail. Our collective attempts to prevent suicide and reduce the suicide rate are directed at the heart of our policies – be they economic regeneration, social justice, inequality, education or the improvement of our mental health care services.

It is disappointing to note that, 83% of respondents in the South and 86% in the North think that the Government in Ireland is not doing enough to raise awareness about and prevent suicide.

As many of you here will be aware, “Reach Out” – A National Strategy for Action on Suicide Prevention was launched here in the South in September 2005. A fundamental aim of this new strategy is to prevent suicidal behaviour, including deliberate self-harm, and to increase awareness of the importance of good mental health among the general population.

The National Office for Suicide Prevention, which was set up following the launch of “Reach Out” is planning a national mental health promotion campaign to take place early in 2007. The aim of this campaign is to address the stigma relating to suicide and mental health, which are serious barriers to seeking help. The National Office is also exploring ways of reaching young people through email, texting, messaging, in order to develop a sustainable programme of action which can be funded in late 2006/2007 onwards. The Office will be consulting young people, voluntary organisations and those using technology to reach out and or to provide services.

I recognise the many challenges that lie ahead and I am aware that there is no easy or single intervention that will bring a guarantee of success. We all have our part to play in helping those who may experience and face traumatic events in life, and who are experiencing emotions and fears so strong that they consider taking their own lives. We must aim to provide accessible, sensitive, appropriate and, where required, intensive support.

Finally, I thank you once again for inviting me here today.

I would like to wish the Irish Association of Suicidology every success in their future endeavors to prevent any further premature loss of life in this country.

Thank you