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Lifeline for the suicidal

Lifeline for the suicidalIn his regular AMDG column, David Gaffney applauds efforts, both in Ireland and abroad, to take a holistic, communitarian approach to suicide prevention, especially among young people.


There were two reasons why I found myself being interviewed by George Hook on Newstalk 106 FM. One was that was that President Mary McAleese had presided on the previous day at the launch of a new programme from the National Office Of Suicide Prevention, to be unveiled in 2007. The other reason was that I had written about suicide in my weekly column in provincial newspapers.

On arriving at the studio, I found that the producer thought my pastoral work involved families bereaved by suicide. I had to immediately make clear that “suicide” was only one of many topics I handled. So I’d like to warn AMDG readers (having been invited to contribute a slot) that what I’ll be offering occasionally is no more than selections from a hack’s scrap-book. Don’t be surprised if you have a better collection yourself!

Have you heard, for instance, of the success of a suicide-prevention campaign in Alaska? I tend to think that newspaper reports feature more the modest upturn in suicides, from campaigns in outlying parts of Britain, than they do the improvement in the suicide situation in the long dark winters and isolated settlements of Alaska.

The Alaskan approach focussed on individual local communities, and was two-pronged. One prong was directly preventative. There were public educational programmes about identifying suicide risk, and about intervening. Participants would be told, for instance, that if somebody brings up this topic as a personal issue, they should be allowed to talk it through: talk can be a life-line. As a back-up, crisis and response teams were set up; and also talking and healing circles.

The other prong of the holistic Alaskan approach was to examine the root cause of self-destructive behaviour in this rural out-post : were young at-risk individuals perhaps not “socialized” enough? – So, in the local communities, initiatives were promoted for socializing : community dinners, craft classes, youth/elder activities, teen centres, dance groups, camping… Could you possibly name some other country with isolated communities where these initiatives might be needed ? Even drug-free social events were introduced in Alaska – which, of course, is not for one moment to suggest that such an initiative might have application elsewhere!

Here in Ireland, one remarkable initiative towards suicide-prevention was pioneered by a G.P. in Midleton, where a number of young men had taken their own lives. Dr. Brian Jordan took a group of young adults and trained them in how to listen and how to empathize. Explained one participant [Carl O’Brien article, Irish Times, 19/2/05]: “It wasn’t in-depth about suicide all the time…It went into different role-plays, put you in different situations, to deal with real-life events…Young people at risk won’t go to their parents, the doctor, the priest, the Garda or the teacher. But they might blurt it out to their friends and someone in the pub after their sixth pint”. Hopefully the friends would be trained not to bungle this opening – and would know how to throw a life-line.