Tragedy Bringing Mental Health Into Focus

Mental Health

Mental Health

With the shocking death last weekend of Gary Speed and the controversy surrounding the suicide of Kate Fitzgerald, our attention has been brought to issues of mental health and suicide.

It is unfortunate that it takes deaths such as these to draw attention to this problem, a problem that happens so frequently yet is rarely ever highlighted.

What people have found so surprising about the death of Speed, a former professional footballer and manager of the Wales national team, is that this is a guy who appeared to have it all. An excellent playing career, emerging managerial career, he was held in high regard by all involved in the game, he had a beautiful wife and family and no major problems that anyone appears to be aware of.

According to the World Health Organisation every year approximately 1million people die from suicide globally, a mortality rate of 1 death every 40 seconds. It is among the top 20 leading causes of death globally for all ages.  It is among the top 3 causes of death among 15 – 34 year olds globally. Take a moment to think about that last statistic, it’s shocking!


That last statistic will be surprising to many people, especially in this country where so much publicity is given to road deaths, yet very little focus is given to a far great killer – suicide. We are constantly told about the number of young people dying on our roads yet nothing about the numbers of young people attempting suicide.

In Ireland at least 520 people took their own lives in 2009, an increase of almost 25 per cent on 2008 and provisional numbers for 2010 are showing a similar figure. The exact figure is hard to pin point as some unexplained deaths are suspected suicides. Also, suicide is still such a taboo subject in Ireland, a country that has such a strong Catholic past where many suicides were covered up so that the victim could receive a full Catholic burial.

Another troubling factor is that suicide seems to be more acute in rural areas where problems are often exacerbated by social isolation. Counties such as Roscommon and Offaly have suicide rates up to twice that of urban counties like Dublin. The issue of suicide in rural areas is one that has been mentioned by County Coroners from Clare, Kerry and Offaly earlier in the year.

Kerry county Coroner, Terence Casey, also raised the issue of a rising rate in the number of suicides among elderly people. In 2009, of the 13 suicides registered in the county 4 were aged 60 and over and 3 were in the 40-50 age group. This adds further weight to the issue of social isolation. It also means cutting funding for carers and home help for the elderly can have disastrous consequences, especially as elderly may also see that home help as a chance for social interaction, especially if their own mobility is limited.

The culture of drinking alcohol in this country needs to come into focus when discussing suicide also. The founder of the Irish Association of Suicidology, Dr John Connolly, has said teenage suicide tends to be a more impulsive act, and that alcohol can lead to an increase in that impulsivity. John’s words are striking and give purpose for us to learn how to help an alcoholic in the family.

Alcohol is implicated in up to 45 per cent of all suicides,” he said. “It blinds people’s judgment and [causes them to] do things that are uncharacteristic and unusual for them. It can increase a person’s depression, which is a big factor in suicide.”

Mental Illness

People say to look out for symptoms but all too often symptoms or tell-tale signs can be hard or impossible to find. As in the case with Gary Speed, as little as 24 hours before his death he had appeared laughing and joking on the BBC’s Football Focus show and had arranged a game of golf with former team-mate Gary McAllister who was also on the show. Nobody noticed any signs of problems or a difference in Speed’s behaviour.

As was posted recently on the website, an organisation that helps young people through tough times and aims to promote mental health,

“Many “experts” would have us believe that suicide warning signs are always there. That we should be watching out for them. But how can we? Life is so unpredictable and so is suicide.”

One mental illness which can hide itself from onlookers is manic depression (bipolar disorder). Symptoms include severe mood swings and repeated episodes of depression. Many are surprised when they hear of certain people diagnosed with this illness as they may have always appeared very happy jovial people. However that outgoing side is the side the public often see, with the darker periods kept for times behind closed doors. This means it’s very hard to encourage someone with this illness to seek the correct help because unless they confide in someone that they have this problem, it can often be near impossible to notice.

The number of people with  bipolar disorder who commit suicide is 60 times higher than in the general population. In Ireland, over 40,000 people have been diagnosed with the illness according to


So what can be done to make a positive change? A 10 year government plan called A Vision For Change had been launched in 2006, however Orla Barry of the Irish Mental Health Coalition believes that the plan has not been implemented to it’s fullest, she said:

The fact that senior executive accountability was never established has been hugely detrimental to implementing the executive policy. The contrast with the progress of the National Cancer Strategy is stark.”

It is important from early on, in our schools, that children are made aware of the places they can turn to like the various websites, phone networks such as the Samaritans or Reachout – a group dedicated to helping young people through tough times. It is also vital that in schools we attempt to remove the non-truths and stigma associated with mental ill-health and mental illness. Most colleges will raise awareness during a mental health week and this is something that should be more widely adopted into society. The country could promote a mental health week nationally, push awareness of the issue in workplaces, newspapers, television and radio adverts.

Fundamentally, the key to making progress in this area is in educating people. Separating fact from fiction. Providing the information and knowledge necessary to help remove stigma, making it easier for people to step forward and look for help or treatment. There are organisations out there attempting to bring about change such as Mental Health Ireland and it is vital that their programmes are adequately promoted and backed so that they can make progress in this area.

It is an incredibly tough time financially for the country and government spending is being cut, however health is a matter worth focusing on and a healthy mind is just as important as good physical health. It is also important that we as individuals attempt to better our approach to this issue as it actually is something that can make a difference in someone’s life by even one person improving their attitude towards mental health.

    • Jacqueline Hogan
    • December 5th, 2011

    This is how one psychiatrist suggests we should tackle mental health problems in Ireland, add lithium to our water supply… I think this is insane!
    Blessings, Jackie

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