In the U.S., facts about suicide amongst the Irish community are more difficult to come by due to the high numbers of undocumented immigrants. Anecdotally, however, community representatives in New York worry that suicide is one of the biggest problems facing the Irish immigrant population.
According to the Samaritans, up to 75 percent of people who commit or attempt suicide show warning signs before they act. Last week, the Aisling Irish Community Center in Yonkers hosted a talk by the Samaritans aimed at helping community workers to recognize those signs and teaching them techniques for dealing with people who may be feeling depressed or suicidal.
The talk was part of an ongoing initiative by the Yonkers-based center to tackle suicide in the Irish community by educating people about potential warning signs, highlighting groups who are most at risk and promoting the services available to vulnerable individuals and friends and family members of suicide victims.
As part of the initiative, the center has held an open night for friends and families of suicide victims and a live Web broadcast of the National Suicide Survivors conference. In May, they launched “Mind Yourself,” a booklet that provides information about a range of services available to Irish immigrants, including suicide and depression counseling services.
“So far the response to the strategy has been great,” according to Patricia Grogan, the Center’s Executive Director.
“We’ve noticed a big increase in the number of people accessing our mental health services. We also noticed an increase in the number of people approaching us whose family and friends were suffering from mental health problems.”
In attempting to find new ways to prevent suicide, Grogan has been working with Dr. Kevin Malone of the 3T’s,a Dublin-based charity which campaigns for more detailed research into suicide.
“Suicide in Ireland is a problem that nobody wants to talk about. Where you’ve got stigma, you get fear and secrecy – it becomes a vacuum,” according to Malone, who believes eliminating that stigma is the first step towards tackling suicide levels. In the past, he has enlisted golfers P_draig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley as role models for the charity’s campaign.
“We’ve tried to approach the subject in a positive way,” he said. “We didn’t even use the word suicide in our title. It automatically puts people off. We want to engage people who don’t want to talk about the problem, who may not even be aware of how deep it runs.”
Alan Ross, executive director of the Samaratins New York branch, thinks the public are in denial about how serious a problem suicide has become.
“Suicide is the final taboo. It cuts too close to the bone,” he said. “It scares people. Everybody at some point in their lives feels overwhelmed, but still think people should be able to snap out of it.”
In New York, the Aisling Center is has consulted with the Samaritans about creating a suicide prevention strategy that will work for the Irish immigrant community.
“A comprehensive plan should educate a community, it should address the social fears, concerns and stigmas people have, it should provide a practical knowledge on how to address the issue,” said Ross.
“We need to engage local businesses and organizations throughout the community,” agreed Grogan.
We would reiterate the World Health Organization’s message that the prevention of suicide is everybody’s business.”
In the next phase of its initiative, the Aisling Center plans carry out a research study into the mental health of the Irish immigrant community, using part of a grant it receives from the Irish government.
“We need to put a clear, structured suicide preventions strategy in place,” said Grogan.
In recent weeks, The Irish government has launched its own National Suicide Prevention Strategy, a 10-year program that aims to promote positive mental health, tackle high-risk groups like men, prisoners and unemployed, create a national intervention skills training program and introduce services for treating deliberate self-harm in accident and emergency departments. Malone thinks the strategy falls short of what is needed to cope with suicide levels in Ireland.
“Over the next 10 years, 5,000 will kill themselves,” he said.
“We want to find out how many of these deaths can be prevented. What we want is to look at the lives behind the statistics. We’re putting together preparation to go around the country and talk to 1,000 families of those who have committed suicide. It’s appalling that we have this level of suicides and we know virtually nothing about individual personalities, and personal circumstances behind the deaths.”
Suicide – what are the warning signs?
– loss of interest in school, work, hobbies, etc.
– preoccupation with death
– becoming isolated
– substance/drug/alcohol abuse
– sudden changes in mood or behavior
– feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, guilt, low self-esteem, shame
– making final arrangements, e.g. giving away prized possessions.
How can you help?
– listen without making judgments or expressing personal values
– Offer support and let the person know you care
– Ask the person if they are feeling suicidal – talking about the subject doesn’t put the idea in people’s heads
– Encourage them to seek help
Whom to contact
– Aisling Irish community Center, Yonkers (914) 237 5121
– Samaritans 24-hour suicide prevention hotline (212) 673 3000
– Emerald Isle immigration Center, Woodside (718) 478 5502
– New York Irish Center, Long Island City (718) 482 0909