Conor McCafferty M.Sc. Reg. MBACP (accred), Chair of the Northern Ireland Suicide Strategy Implementation Body, takes a look at the region’s suicide incidence and why we must ensure that our current and future service provision is equipped with an effective approach to help those struggling.

As therapists with Zest: Healing the Hurt for the past 21 years, my colleagues and I have talked with several thousand young, middle-aged and older people who have experienced self-harming and suicidal behaviours. In some cases, there were underlying clinical conditions, however in most cases, the service-users were ‘feeling very bad’ because bad things had happened in their lives.

Many came from disadvantaged areas, experiencing poverty, unemployment, substance misuse, family problems, gender problems, sexual orientation. Many had experienced adverse childhood events, indicating the fundamental importance of a nurturing early childhood and positive parenting as a protective factor against later suicide.

I was delighted to see the Public Health Agency Infant Mental Health action plan and new Department of Education and Department of Health framework being developed and implemented to promote emotional resilience in children and young people. This is particularly important for young boys and men to help develop healthy emotional expression and behaviour, without which we see the unacceptable levels of suicide in young males of working age.

The statistic that five people die by suicide every week here (or almost one a day) are the people who feel trapped and do not see any other viable option for addressing the emotional pain that they feel. In many cases alcohol and illegal / prescribed or ‘over-the-counter’ drugs can become the ‘medicine’ that anaesthetises the pain, leading eventually to a more vulnerable disposition to suicide and self-harm. We also have addressed the issue of repeat self-harm with a very specific focus in this strategy. We have identified these vulnerable groups from the Self-Harm Registry statistics. The Self-Harm Register is maintained in each Emergency Department of the major hospitals and it records the details of the self-harm / suicide attempt. This information is collated regularly by the Public Health Agency and is used to inform current and future service provision.

The importance of enhancing protective factors in the general population that prevent people becoming suicidal at a later date can never be under-stated. This includes the importance of developing family and community connectedness, a sense of ‘belonging’, which many who are suicidal or self-harming lack in their lives. We can give this sense of belonging through a more compassionate and empathic approach to those who are struggling. It is compassion and kindness that give us ‘hope’ for the future.

However, in order to give this to others, we must, in the first instance, give it to ourselves. The importance of self-care is highlighted in the strategy and it applies to all of us. We have to take responsibility for our lives physically, emotionally, psychologically, socially and spiritually (that means the reason we give to our existence). The after-effects of a suicide reach into every community and have a devastating impact on families, friends, colleagues and others, e.g. first-responders, physical and mental health professionals. They are traumatic events that need high levels of self-care and self-compassion.

I have heard so many times in recent years, after a suicide, that ‘there are no services.’ In my experience there have never been as many services as we have now. Protect Life 2 ensures that these services are available but the one thing that we can’t ensure is getting the person to come for help. Parents / siblings often ask me, ‘How do I get him / her to go for help as they are refusing?’ My response is always, ‘If the worst were to happen, what would you regret not having done?’ and the answer comes immediately. So many times the suicidal / self-harming person is not in a position to think or see clearly what they need to do so we must make the decisions for them. It is vital that family members and friends encourage, support and, if necessary, make decisions for those that they see or know who are struggling. The services are there to help them. Protect Life 2 ensures that.

About the Author

Conor is a Director of Zest: Healing the Hurt Ltd. He has a background in youth work and further education and taught the part-time University of Ulster Diploma in Counselling as well as delivering the NVQ levels two, three, four and five in Advice and Guidance, Counselling and Psychotherapy at the NWIFHE.

Conor was also employed by Northlands, a residential alcohol treatment centre, and was seconded to the Homefirst Community Addiction Service in the Northern Health Board, with clinics in Coleraine, Magherafelt and in Derry.

Conor is a registered and accredited psychotherapist with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.    

He has been with Zest for the past 21 years, and is currently responsible for the day-to-day running of the service.