The University of Ulster report suggests that the rise in suicide may be explained by a reduction in the sense of “common cause” that united working-class areas during 35 years of violence.
The study, carried out with the Department of Psychiatry at the Mater Hospital in North Belfast, says the conflict strengthened social bonds within communities and “buffered” people from contemplating taking their own lives.
Since the peace process the threat has increased, with more than 150 people committing suicide in Northern Ireland annually, most being young males from poor backgrounds.
Iain McGowan, nursing lecturer at the University of Ulster and a report author, said: “Where you have areas of conflict the rate of suicide tends to drop during that period.
“When people come together to confront a general threat they tend to think less about themselves as individuals and more of the common cause, so suicidal thoughts may be pushed to the back of their minds,” he said.
McGowan examined the trends in suicide rates and conflict-related deaths from 1966 to 1999. He found a direct relationship between the two — when conflict increased, suicide fell and vice versa.
The lowest year for suicide deaths was 1972 when 47 people took their own lives. This coincided with the highest annual death toll in the conflict, when some 500 people were killed.
“We believe that civil unrest led to extreme polarization of communities and the ghettoization of large parts of Northern Ireland,” he said.
“In effect, polarized political civil unrest has the potential to foster and develop a sense of community in these pockets, drawn together by a common desire to survive together and a perceived sense of injustice.
“This appears to have buffered the population from the excesses and psychiatric morbidity possibly resultant from the troubles and protected them from suicide,” he said.
The issue has become such a concern that international experts gathered for a prevention conference in Belfast last week. The British government has been widely criticized for its failure to support local self-help groups with funding.
This week, a West Belfast family was coming to terms with the tragic death of their teenage son — the third member of the family to die by suicide. Patrick O’Brien, 17, was found hanging in his Springfield Road home.
His family have said he suffered from mental health problems and had sought help but had had to wait for six weeks for an appointment with a counselor. They have called for more immediate help for young people at risk of suicide.
Deirdre O’Brien said the help her grandson needed had not been readily available. “They say if you go and ask for help it is there. It wasn’t there,” she said.
“He used to say to me ‘Granny, my head is melting.'” That’s the way he used to talk,” she said. “You look at the statistics here and there is not a week goes by without a death.”