Reaching out is key to preventing suicide

Today, 10th September, is World Suicide Prevention Day. Reaching out for help or reaching out to help – even with a few simple words – can save lives.

Image: Aware on Facebook. http://www.aware.ie

Yesterday, my doctor asked me straight out: “Are you suicidal?” I was talking to him, among other things, about the resurgence of depression I’ve experienced since being hit by a car four weeks ago. As low as I’ve been at times lately, the question still took me a little by surprise. I didn’t have to think about the answer. I told him straight out: “No.”

That answer doesn’t come as easy to everyone. Worryingly, the opposite answer comes too easily to many people. And more worryingly still, some of those people feel they need to keep that answer to themselves. Every year, more than 800,000 people worldwide die by suicide – about 1 person every 40 seconds – and for every one person who dies, there are over 20 more people who attempt to. It doesn’t have to happen.

Reaching Out and Saving Lives is the theme of this year’s World Suicide Prevention Day. In her video message to launch the day, Prof. Ella Arensman, President of the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) pointed out that:

“For many people who survive a suicide attempt, their main intent was not to die but to have a different life. This important insight should encourage all of us… to reach out to support people improving their quality of life.”

In the Mind Matters section of this blog, I’ve written quite a bit about how important communication is in not only breaking down the stigma around mental health issues but also breaking down the isolation that is so often at the heart of depression. When depression gets to the life-and-death level of suicide, that communication becomes the most urgent and maybe most powerful tool in saving people’s lives. The recent story of the Dublin teenager who asked a suicidal man “Are you okay?” is testament to that.

That’s the beginning of reaching out. Even just those three words. And it can work either way. Whether you are worried for someone else’s safety or whether you are worried for your own, three words – “Are you okay?” or “I’m not okay” – could quite literally save a person’s life. It can be the beginning of that different life. Instead of dying, that man is now expecting a child, already named after the kid who asked him if he was okay.

Don’t wait for someone to reach out to you. Whether you’re reaching out to help or reaching out for help, you can always reach out first.


Image: Aware on Facebook www.aware.ie
Image: Aware on Facebook http://www.aware.ie

Here are some useful links and resources.

There are plenty of mental health and suicide prevention organisations and groups in Ireland. If you or someone you know needs to, please get in touch with one of these organisations, or find the ones local to you.

Pieta House:  step-by-step action plans and immediate supports both for people who are self-harming or suicidal and for people who are worried about a friend. www.pieta.ie

Aware: Depression, anxiety and bipolar support and information. Suicide Hotline: 1890 303 302 www.aware.ie

Samaritans: Phone, text or face-to-face emotional support. Suicide Hotline116123, Text 0872609090 www.samaritans.org

Console: Counselling, bereavement support, support groups. Suicide Hotline: 1800 247 247 or text HELP to 51444 www.console.ie

Reach Out (online youth mental health service) ie.reachout.com

HSE mental health website: www.yourmentalhealth.ie

No Country for Old Men: Yeats, Joyce and Hugh Lane

William Butler Yeats, 1933

As William Butler Yeats turns 150, an exhibition at the Hugh Lane is a little like having the poet as a tour guide

William Butler Yeats, 1933
William Butler Yeats, 1933

You would hardly know it was three days to Bloomsday. The middle of June in Dublin is usually infused with Joycean events and readings and articles, but this year, the face in the arts pages, banners and posters is not James Joyce but W.B. Yeats. Fair enough, though. Tuesday might be the annual celebration of Joyce’s masterwork, but today would have been Yeats’ 150th birthday.

I admit I’m not hugely knowledgeable on either. I’ve read and reread Portrait of the Artist… and Dubliners, but dipped no more than a toe in the “snotgreen… scrotumtightening sea” of Ulysses. I’m fine with the fact that I’ll die without attempting Finnegan’s Wake. The Yeats poems I know best are still the ones we studied at school – Sailing to Byzantium, September 1913 and When You are Old – and even though I loved mythology as a kid, I sometimes find his mythological and spiritualist allusions a little too cerebral for my tastes. For me, Yeats dealt more with the grandiose – with idealism and politics and nationalism – whereas Joyce was more rooted in mundane and intimate humanity, and it might be for that reason that I feel more of an affinity with Joyce’s writings.

That said, an accidental encounter with Yeats this week was a disarmingly intimate and personal one.  Continue reading

Societal shift: When Ireland came out for equality

Even before the marriage equality referendum, the Yes campaign had already raised the status of LGBT people in Irish society for good

Photo credit: © Brian Lawless/Newscom

After casting my vote for marriage equality last week, I took off at dawn on Saturday to spend a few days with my godson and his parents. Other than a few snatched moments of internet access, I had little connection to what was happening at home. But I talked with my friends about what was happening, about what I hoped and what I feared might happen. I told my godson’s father about how I was worried the vote would be a lot closer than the polls showed, that a silent No vote could hold sway. He said something that gave me some hope. He said that even if it came to the worst, even if it was a No, it wouldn’t be a No for long. Eventually, he predicted, equality would come, because something amazing had already happened and Irish society had already changed.

I knew he was right. I’d seen that change. We’ve all see it. Over the last few months, Ireland’s LGBT community has come out en masse – with all the uncertain and nerve-wracking courage and bravery that must take – come out to ask for acceptance. Not tolerancea distinction made brilliantly by American activist Ash Beckham – but acceptance, to be inclusively treated as equal citizens in Irish society. There was no ignoring or denying the scale of that movement: Yes or No on the day, the closet door was open for good.

Continue reading

Eco Logic: Approaching a sustainable future for Ireland

Note: This post was written as part of the World Bank Group’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided. It serves as an introduction to this  blog’s new Eco Logic tab and a portal to the five Climate Conversations posts
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Ireland is neither the most vulnerable not the responsible country when it comes to climate change. But like every country, climate change will – and already is – having an impact. We have a role to play minimising that impact, both on our own shores and as part of a global effort.

As an island, Ireland is vulnerable to sea level rise, and to flooding and extreme coastal erosion due to Atlantic storm surges – as was witnessed by a series of storms in the winter of 2013/4. Such events are already occurring with greater frequency well before we reach even 1 degree of the projected 2-4 dregree global mean temperature rise.

There are, however, great opportunities for Ireland in adapting to its changing climate. Continue reading

What would Jesus vote?

As Ireland votes on marriage equality, is the religious objection really as clear-cut as it seems?

Yesterday, someone very close to me said that, because of his religious beliefs he couldn’t bring himself to vote Yes. He had made his mind up to vote No because he believed it was what Jesus would do.

Two women kiss outside Trinity College Dublin as a ‘no’ protestor waves a placard above their heads. James Delaney/Twitter

I left the religious issue out of yesterday’s post because this is a referendum purely on the issue of civil marriage and that is what we need to focus on. But the reality is, many people will vote based on religious beliefs. In pamphlets, statements and homilies, bishops and priests have advised mass-goers to vote No, to preserve traditional religious understandings of marriage, even though religious marriage is not at stake in this referendum. For many people who believe they have God on their side, the rest of the discussion is irrelevant.

I was a Christian myself for the first 19 years of my life, but I’ve been an atheist for the last 19 and so I don’t have anyone quite of the status of Jesus to offer as an alternative voice. But I do still wonder: Would Jesus really vote No? Continue reading

Vote with your head as well as your heart

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The freedoms of real people and real families are at stake in Ireland’s marriage referendum. We must put the facts before the fears when we vote. 


My nephew Alejandro is nine. He doesn’t like to be left out of the loop. He could be watching TV, reading or playing video games but if he catches so much as a whisper in an adult conversation, he’ll drop everything and demand “What?” To which he’s usually told: “It’s adult stuff.” A couple of weeks ago, however, he started to suspect that some adult stuff was about kids – when he saw a poster on a lamppost that read Children deserve a mother and father. This time, when he asked, his mother decided to let him in.

Image: Irish Independent

“It’s about whether gay people should be allowed to get married,” she told him.

“Oh my god!” he gasped, horrified.

Priming herself for a ‘talk’, my sister tentatively asked what the matter was.

“That’s ridiculous!” he answered. “Why would that even be a question?”

Nonplussed, she said: “Do you think they should be able to get married?”

“Of course!” he replied. “If they love each other, why can’t they?”

For Alejandro, and probably most people, love is instinctively an essential element for marriage. For many others, it is instinctive to think of marriage as ‘husband+wife’. For Mothers and Fathers Matter, the organisation who put up that poster, family instinctively means ‘husband+wife+children’. Our own instincts may be all well and good, but when we make decisions that affect others, we need to rely on our reason as well as our instincts. We need to consider the facts and the realities.

Myriad realities

Alejandro and his sister have a mother and father who have been married for over ten years. By the No campaign’s formula, this should be the ideal family situation. But their reality is far from ideal and always has been. The ins and outs aren’t important here – the point is that there is no ideal family situation. Every family is different, and those rigid and simplistic generalisations about what a family should be and what every child deserves don’t reflect the myriad realities of real people’s lives.

Last month, my friend Annemarie Ní Churreáin wrote an excellent article in which she delved into Ireland’s rich cultural history of family and parenthood. What she portrayed was a reality much more profound and dynamic than such shallow stereotypes. In one passage, she compares the instinctive assumption of the No campaign’s slogan with the more nuanced reality:

Children benefit from the balance that mothers and fathers bring to parenting” say the anti-marriage equality group Mothers and Fathers Matter. This claim is not in dispute. Children also benefit from love, security, social acceptance and information. There is an endless list of things that benefit children. No parent is super-human and no-one can provide every single possible benefit, but the beauty and reality of families is that each parent can, regardless of gender or sexuality, bring to the task of child-rearing their own unique recipe of benefits. This recipe makes a family uniquely special.

In my own extended family, there are many unique and different family set-ups. We have single-parent families, some with only a mother, some with only a father. We have separated families, widowed families, remarried families and childless families. None of them are any less a family for not conforming to the generic formula that The Iona Institute and Mothers & Fathers Matter call “irreplaceable”. All these families have the very same legal and constitutional protections, entitlements and rights. For all their variety and diversity, what they have in common is love and commitment. Whatever shape their particular framework takes, that much is essential.

That same love and commitment were no less evident when Amnesty International’s Colm O’Gorman spoke of his relationship with his partner of 16 years and their two children. When his daughter Safia wrote of her feelings about her parents, it was hard to deny that this was a familial relationship much like any other, where “my parents cook, clean, do laundry, listen to me moan about school, help me with homework and encourage me throughout my exams, just like any other parent”. But her parents are not heterosexual and so they are not entitled to formalise and safeguard that familial relationship with civil marriage. They are not entitled to the rights, opportunities and protections that families of all other shapes and makeups can avail of. The constitution does not consider them a family. Not because the children don’t have a mother. Not because they are not biologically related to their parents. Solely because the two parents are gay. Is that right or just? Is it in the children’s best interests?

Regardless of the outcome of Friday’s referendum, many children will continue to be raised by LGBT parents in Ireland. If groups like Iona and Mothers and Fathers Matter truly believe the married family unit to be in the best interests of children, wouldn’t it be better for those children if their parents could be married? Not just civil-partnered – which another deeply callous poster declares should be good enough – but married, with the protections and opportunities that civil partnership neglects to provide to LGBT couples and families.

Best for children

That declared concern for the impact of same-sex marriage on children’s welfare is at the heart of the No campaign, and of course it is crucial that children are protected in every area of our society. So one would imagine those concerns should be alleviated by the assurances of every major child welfare agency, by all the evidence that same-sex parenting is not intrinsically any better or worse for children. When the ISPCC says that, in fact, “children and young people… are directly and adversely impacted by a system in which rights to marry are restricted to heterosexual couples,” one would hope that those who say that children’s welfare is their prime concern would reconsider their stance.

Image: Barnardo’s

When the chair of the adoption authority explains that a child’s welfare will still be paramount in deciding who is best suited to be her parents, and the head of the Referendum Commission himself states that the amendment will have no impact whatsoever on future surrogacy legislation, one would think those worries would be assuaged. But no, no and no. Why?

Because, for all its claims, the No campaign knows as well as the Yes campaign that that’s not really what this referendum is about. The wording of the proposed amendment is clear and it is specific – ‘Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.’ That is it and that is all. It is solely about civil, non-religious marriage and sexuality.

However, ever since the so-called Pantigate incident, Iona and Mothers and Fathers Matter have studiously avoided talking about sexuality – presumably for fear of being labelled as homophobic. Instead, they have doggedly dragged the debate off-track with tangential speculations about same-sex marriage being bad for children – even after their claims have been conclusively refuted by the experts. Moreover, despite this unswerving focus on children, the No campaign is just as opposed to same-sex marriage even if there are no children involved. Why? Because that is not really the issue.

Staying on-track

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When we go to the polls on Friday, we all need to stay on-track. We need to focus only on what we are being asked – should a couple’s sexuality should bar them from the same legal and constitutional recognition and protection as other couples? There may indeed be a link between marriage and parenthood but they are not mutually dependent, and it is misleading to treat them as such. Children are complementary to a marriage; they are not essential for marriage. Even if the debunked claims about adoption, surrogacy or parenting abilities were valid, that still would not justify denying all same-sex couples the right to a civil marriage, just because of speculations about what a fraction of those couples may or may not choose to do in the future. That is the implication of a No vote, and that is neither fair nor just.

That is not to suggest that anybody thinking of voting No is inherently a bad person. I don’t doubt that there are many people with honest concerns, people who, with the best intentions, are wary of voting Yes, because of traditional beliefs or because of fears propagated by the No campaign. We often have an instinctive fear of change, of breaking with the tried-and-trusted past, afraid that we might regret our actions. That wariness and instinct is not necessarily a bad thing – so long as we we are wise enough to not act on instinct alone. We need to weigh our instincts against the facts and the realities to find out if they are well-founded or not.

My worry is that – in the privacy of the polling booth – wary instinct might trump the reality, that nebulous notions of the ideal family might trump the actual situations of real families, and that many people who do honestly believe in equality may nevertheless vote against it. If the referendum were to be defeated on false pretenses, because of exaggeration, equivocation and misinformation, it would truly be a tragedy. My hope, however, is that – whatever our instincts – we will consider the real people, with all their diverse but equally valid realities, and we will vote out of reason and compassion and not just instinctive fear or unquestioned dogma.

Evolving instincts

Instincts are not absolute. They change and evolve with our environment, our society and our times. My nephew’s instinct is that committed couples who love each other should be allowed to marry, whatever their sexuality. My instincts at his age would have been very different, as the Ireland shaping those instincts was very different. Homosexuality was a still crime at that time, and the very notion of same-sex marriage would have been instinctively alien to me. Not that I was even aware there was such a thing as homosexuality at his age, and I was much older than he is now before I had anything like his thoughtful and empathetic understanding of it. Ireland has matured and opened up enormously since then, and it is all the better for it. Perhaps it is that openness that has influenced the instincts of kids like Alejandro and Safia O’Gorman to be more fluid and inclusive – instincts that are more closely aligned to the realities we find in our society.

It’s not just society and instincts that evolve like this. Marriage changes and evolves too. It always has and it always will – as Fintan O’Toole illustrates eloquently in today’s Irish Times. It is not – and never has been – the static, rigid institution the Iona Institute and others would have us believe. It is a social institution and as such, it has, can, will and must adapt with society. The Archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin, recently said that changing marriage is “not a trivial matter”. He is right in that: it is far from a trivial matter for people who are denied the protections and of civil marriage simply because they are not heterosexual. For those of us who are, it’s not trivial either. Why should our country deny our friends and certain members of our families the same rights it grants us, just because of the gender of who they love and commit to? Shaping our constitution to reflect our changing society so that it affords the same respect, recognition and security to all citizens is not trivial at all: it’s our duty.

This Friday, I hope we will do that duty. Please go and vote. Please vote with your head as well as your heart. Please vote Yes to a constitution that respects and protects the love and commitment of all couples and families equally. Everyone deserves that and LGBT couples and families deserve no less.


Check out this beautiful short film by Karla Healion in which different couples and parents reflect on what family and marriage means to them