19 February 2004 Edition
Suicide tragedy in Ardoyne
BY ÁINE Ní BHRIAIN
This Tuesday, 17 February, 18-year-old Bernard Cairns was laid to rest amid scenes of agonising sorrow. The young man had taken his own life only hours after attending the funeral of his friend Anthony O'Neill, who had also died by suicide.
Cairns death is the 13th by suicide in the North Belfast area since Christmas -- an average of two people a week in the last six weeks. Although the recent deaths cross all boundaries of religion, age and gender, those who are taking their own lives are overwhelmingly males under the age of 25 and the deaths have sparked urgent pleas for help.
Ardoyne Parish Priest Father Aiden Troy has called for immediate government action to tackle the issue of teenage suicides in the Ardoyne area of North Belfast.
"There has been a dark sadness over this community in recent days," said Fr Troy. "This community is losing young people every week and something needs to be done to stop it. There is a responsibility on the Churches, politicians, and community and statutory agencies to work together to help these young people.
"This community has suffered more than most during the last 30 years, through a combination of the conflict and social deprivation. Our young people do not seem to be able to see a way out. We have to show them that they have a future."
Ardoyne community worker Philip McTaggart, who has been involved in helping to counsel young people in the area, also warned that the issue was at crisis point.
McTaggat — who lost his own 17-year-old son to suicide last summer — got together with other families who had lost loved ones in similar circumstances after the tragedy. Together, they set up the PIPS project, which stands for Public Initiative to help Prevent Self-harm. The project was named after McTaggart's son Philip, whose nickname was Pip.
McTaggart says that since its inception eight months ago, the group has been inundated with people seeking help, support and information.
"Although we are mainly based in Ardoyne, we have been able to cross the divide and have gone to help families in the Shankill and Tigers Bay who need help," says McTaggart. "It is unfortunate that we have to exist at all but the fact that we can provide information to families who need our help is worthwhile."
He added that community workers had been lobbying statutory agencies for more support even before the recent spate of tragedies.
"We met with people from the North and West Health Board on Friday last and they assured us they will do whatever is needed. The rate of young people in this community who are taking their own lives shows that community resources are urgently needed.
"In nationalist North Belfast, there is nothing for young people to do. There is no leisure centre, and we have ongoing problems with drugs, underage drinking, and unemployment to name just a few. What we need is somewhere for young people between the ages of 14 to 20 to go for help.
"More people die as a result of suicide than those killed on the roads each year, yet no one wants to talk about the issue."
This week, it was revealed that the current situation is so severe it has prompted the emergency provision of counselling services for the area.
Until Monday 23 February, anyone wishing to speak in confidence can contact a number of organisations 24 hours a day. After the 23rd, services such as the Samaritans and PIPS project will continue to be available.
Relatives of some of those who have recently died in Ardoyne have lashed out at the INLA, saying their young loved ones had been repeatedly singled out for abuse by the group and had become depressed and paranoid as a result.
But whether the INLA's involvement was a factor or not, the media focus on their involvement is a simplistic and sensationalist response. The fact is that the rising rate of suicide has been an ongoing problem in the Six Counties for several years now, with suicide now the leading killer of young men under 25, and little has been done about it.
A recent report by the Association of Suicidology claims there were more than 140 deaths by suicide in the Six Counties in the last 12 months, and while the mainstream media is content to splash photos of those who have been lost sitting in wheelchairs after punishment beatings, the real issue is being ignored.
There are no easy answers to this crisis. The only truth is that our children and loved ones are dying because they and their families are not getting enough help. The questions we should all be asking right now is "Why?" and "How can we stop it?"
• Anyone who wishes to speak with a counsellor in confidence can call the PIPS project at 02890 757525 or 02890 752990 or Samaritans at 08457 909090.