Local councillors fought back tears as they shared their experiences of suicide during a council discussion last week week.
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” and that reducing suicide be “treated as a priority” by council.
The Times recently 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.
“We cannot stand back and let this happen.”
The elected representative 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 the Samaritans.
Calling for a full examination of the services available in the borough, she urged council to “establish a tailored approach to mental
health for the people of Mid and East Antrim.”
Her motion was seconded by DUP Cllr William McCaughey.
“Suicide is a scar on the community which we need to attempt to eradicate,” he said.
“Suicide is not a lover of social boundaries; all classes and ages from the youngest to the oldest and richest to poorest are affected.
“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.”
UUP Councillor Stephen Nicholl shared his experiences of dealing with suicide during his previous role in the ambulance service, and said that council had a responsibility to deal with the causes of mental health problems as well as the symptoms.
“The causes continue to be wide and varied, some causes include young people coming to terms with their sexuality; parmilitarism continues to be a major cause of suicide through the impact of drugs, threats, bullying,” he stated.
“While we pay lip service to addressing this we still have far to go in terms of making this society an equal society.
“The community plan is an opportunity to ddress this and improve the quality of life.”
Cllr Nicholl also called for the education system to teach children “coping mechanisms and resilience” as well as how to get help so they could grow and develop.
“The Troubles this society has been through have resulted in significant changes in our capacity to deal with mental health issues,” he continued.
“We need to improve the mental health of the community, to reduce the incidence of suicide. We need to take it on as a challenge and play our role, not just for this generation but for the next generation.”
SDLP Councillor Declan O’Loan said the council needed to approach the issue with “modesty” and called for more direct references to mental health in the community plan.
“Our past, the presence of paramiliatrism may well be a causative factor of our high level of suicide here, it’s food for thought,” he added.
Welcoming the motion, TUV Councillor Timothy Gaston said that suicide affected “many families in Northern Ireland and in East Antrim,” and that there were “many myths” surrounding it.
Alliance Cllr Robert Logan commended the free Here2Help app, which he said provides advice and contact details.
Summing up, Cllr Johnston expressed her appreciation for the “courage” of other councillors in sharing their experiences.
Mayor Audrey Wales added: “The courage that some councillors have shown tonight in speaking the way they have is very humbling.”
The motion passed with unanimous support.