Local councillors fought back tears as they shared their personal experiences of suicide during a poignant council discussion on Monday night.
The emotional scenes occurred during a discussion on a motion proposed by DUP Councillor Cheryl Johnston that Mid and East Antrim Council should recognise the “very concerning level of deaths by suicide in Northern Ireland.”
Cllr Johnston’s motion also asked that the reduction of deaths by suicide be “treated as a priority in Mid and East Antrim Borough Council”, that the council’s community plan address the underlying causes of suicide, and that the local authority’s Health and Well-being Strategy integrate the Department of Health’s forthcoming ‘Protect Life 2’ strategy at a local level.
Last week,the Times revealed that there were 24 suicides or attempted suicides in the Mid and East Antrim area in 2016, an increase of four on the previous year when there were 20 recorded deaths from suicide in Mid and East Antrim.
Addressing the chamber, Cllr Johnston called for mental health to go “up the political agenda” and for a multi-agency approach to tackle the issue of suicide in Mid and East Antrim.
“Every life lost represents someone’s partner, child, friend or colleague,” Cllr Johnston stated.
“This has a direct impact on the families, workplaces and the communities.
“This is not just a health matter; no one organisation can directly address all factors. It is essential that a multi-agency approach is created at a strategic and operational level that reaches out to every area in Mid and East Antrim working together to help prevent suicides, those in social crises or those that have lost a loved one though suicide.”
Cllr Johnston called for a “partnership approach” between agencies, the community and voluntary sector.
“I was shocked to hear that more people in Northern Ireland lose their life to suicide than in road traffic accidents,” she continued.
“In 2016 there were 24 suicides or attempted suicides in our borough. We cannot stand back and let this happen.”
Cllr Johnston called for the council to “push forward locally and regionally to get something done” in terms of structures, strategies and funding to deal with mental health
Cllr Johnston commended the work of organisations such as Turning Point NI, PIPS, Lifeline and Samaritans as well as the council’s Here2Help app and Sunnylands and Woodburn Community Development Group, who received £10,000 to deliver mental health and first aid training.
Calling for a full examination of the services available in the borough, Cllr Johnston urged council to “establish a tailored approach to mental
health for the people of Mid and East Antrim.”
Cllr Johnston’s motion was seconded by DUP Cllr William McCaughey, who shared his own experience of supporting a friend who attempted suicide.
“Suicide is a scar on the community which we need to attempt to eradicate,” he said.
Cllr McCaughey cited the legacy of the Troubles, busy lifestyles and social media as factors.
“Suicide is not a lover of social boundaries, all classes and ages from the youngest to the oldest and richest to poorest are affected,” he stated.
“Society is working hard to eradicate stigma around mental illnesses but that stigma still exists, albeit to a lesser degree.
“In Northern Ireland we have spent less on mental health than any other region of the UK but our rate is higher than any other region of the UK.
“It’s no surprise we have the highest incidence.”
Alliance Cllr Robert Logan commended the free Here2Help app, which provides useful advice and contact details.
Independent Councillor James Brown said that he had attended the funeral of a young suicide victim on Christmas Eve, and that “society is part of the problem.”
“One of the biggest problems is that many cannot see their own worth or value,” he stated.
“Our community has devalued life by terrorism, by the way we conduct ourselves.
Cllr Brown cited the biblical example of Job, and said that the “tragedy of our society” was that “we have lost the hope in God.”
“My message to anyone this evening who is contemplating taking their own life is: there is hope, there is hope,” he continued.
“The solution is found only in the perfect lamb of God.”
Summing up, Cllr Johnston expressed her appreciation for the “courage” of other councillors in sharing their experiences.
The motion passed with unanimous support.