Speeches

Address by Mr Micheál Martin TD, Minister for Health and Children at the opening of the 6th Annual Conference of the Irish Association of Suicidology “Suicide and Mental Health” on Saturday, 15 September, 2001

Introduction

I am delighted to have been invited here today to officially open the 6th Annual Conference of the Irish Association of Suicidology. I would like to begin by saying how pleased I am to have the opportunity to contribute to this conference.

Irish Association of Suicidology

Since its foundation in 1996, this Association has done much to help promote public awareness of suicide and suicidal behaviour, especially through the organisation of conferences and workshops.

This conference will highlight the importance of mental health promotion in suicide prevention. It will ensure that the public are informed about the services, such as counselling and psychotherapy, available for helping those who are suicidal. An annual conference of this nature provides a forum where those interested in suicide prevention can meet and exchange views.

We are all well aware of the important work which is undertaken by voluntary organisations in this country.

Voluntary organisations are to the forefront in attempting to understand and address the issues leading to suicide. They encourage relevant research, which is an essential element of prevention. They also offer support to people suffering from suicidal thoughts and to families affected by suicide. The commitment and dedication of the volunteers working with the voluntary organisations is to be commended. Their input is invaluable in not only providing support for those most vulnerable in our society but also in heightening awareness of the importance of self-help and empowerment of the individual in attaining positive mental health and in overcoming the crises of life.

Suicide

Suicide is in every case a tragedy, both for the life that has ended and the family, friends and community left behind. Suicidal behaviour demonstrates that something is fundamentally wrong, either with the individual or with the situation in which the individual exists, or with both situation and the individual.

Through information from relatives, it has become clear that most people who committed suicide had long-lasting emotional problems such as depression, anxiety, unhappy relationships, alcohol and drug-related problems, unemployment, feelings of loneliness and guilt, problems with relatives, and so on. All this affirms that the factors which lead a person to take his or her own life are of a long-lasting nature. In order to understand why people commit suicide we have to take into consideration the individual’s character traits, coping abilities, social support and life events. We also need to understand the social origins of individual emotional problems. In the early childhood of people who have committed suicide, we quite often find broken homes, separation and divorce, loss of one or both parents, rape and sexual abuse, incest, domestic violence, alcohol abuse by parents, exam and peer pressure and other adverse life events.

There is evidence that suicide victims have experienced more of these traumatic events than others. It is clear that stability in social relations and healthy cultural attitudes towards emotional problems are needed in the fight against suicide.

Coping with life

The ability of people, especially young people, to cope with life is a crucial factor influencing their health, particularly their mental health. Counselling services, which form an important part of the treatment of depression and suicidal behaviour, provide an important support structure in helping people recover from a wide variety of difficult situations and ailments. Learning to cope with life is vital to a person’s well-being. Modern society places a lot of stress on young people and in many instances they are unable to cope. When this occurs they should feel that they can seek assistance without fear of being stigmatised or embarrassed.

Promoting Positive Mental Health

A key factor in suicide prevention is the promotion of positive mental health. Mental illness has traditionally been a hidden illness that people were embarrassed to talk about. We are all aware of the pressures on young people such as bullying, emotional distress, addictions, peer pressure and exam pressure. We often tend to think that people are weak if they suffer from anxiety, depression, inability to cope, or have suicidal tendencies, but it is widely acknowledged that one in four women and one in ten men will experience depression during their lifetime. Many of these people are successful people, role models, celebrities who we all know.

The promotion of positive mental health will contribute significantly to combating the ignorance and stigma which often surrounds mental illness and will also be effective in the area of suicide prevention especially among young people. This enables people to talk about their feelings and emotional problems and to seek help without fear of being labelled a failure.

Better understanding of mental illness encourages people to access professional help sooner rather than later, and this facilitates early recovery. We must also continue to improve the quality of life of people with long standing recurrent or acute mental health problems and that of their families and friends.

My Department recognises the importance of early intervention and positive mental health and also the important work of voluntary agencies who work hand-in-hand with the statutory agencies. The Department of Health and Children has supported and developed many initiatives over the past number of years in the area of mental health, often in co-operation with the voluntary agencies.

Suicide Prevention

The challenge of suicide prevention is one of the most urgent issues facing Irish society.

The key components of the overall strategy aimed at reducing suicide include the implementation of measures aimed at high risk groups, provision of information and training on suicide prevention to relevant professionals and organisations and the improvement of services which would benefit those at risk of suicide and those who attempt suicide. Health boards, in particular, have a major role to play in co-ordinating efforts to help reduce the level of suicide and attempted suicide in this country. Support is also needed for voluntary organisations dealing with people suffering from depression, mental illness and bereavement who are at risk of suicide and attempted suicide.

National Task Force on Suicide

In the past there was an understandable reluctance to even discuss the issue of suicide. This has now changed.

Since the publication of the report of the National Task Force on Suicide in 1998 there has been a positive and committed response among both the statutory and voluntary sectors towards finding ways of tackling the tragic problem of suicide. The majority of health boards have established working groups to examine the implementation of the recommendations. The working groups are multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary and engage in the promotion of positive mental health and the de-stigmatisation of suicide, provide information in relation to suicide and Parasuicide, liaise with the media and provide training requirements for staff in relation to all aspects of suicide and Parasuicide.

A Suicide Research Group has been established by the Health Boards and membership of the Group includes experts in the areas of mental health, public health and research.

The main responsibilities of the Suicide Research Group are to review ongoing trends in suicide and Parasuicide, to coordinate research into suicide and to make appropriate recommendations to the Chief Executive Officers of health boards. Resource Officers have been appointed in all the health boards with specific responsibility for implementing the Task Force’s recommendations.

Funding

This year £830,000 was provided for suicide prevention programmes in the health boards and towards research aimed at improving our understanding of suicide and parasuicide.

The level of capital funding available for the development of mental health facilities in the community has also been increased in order to make services more accessible to people who may be at risk of suicide.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I would like to pay tribute to the organisers of this conference. The hard work, effort and dedication of all those involved is to be complimented. I am confident that the work being undertaken by the Irish Association of Suicidology will continue to have a positive impact and thus enhance the well-being and quality of life for many people.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to wish the Association continued success with their work.