April 7, 2009

CARL O'BRIEN, Social Affairs Correspondent

A CONSULTANT psychiatrist has warned that disproportionate coverage of high-profile suicides linked to the recession could lead to a spate of “copycat” deaths.

Dr Justin Brophy, vice-chairman of the Irish Association of Suicidology and adviser to the Health Service Executive (HSE), said society was in danger of “talking itself into a crisis” about how people were coping in the face of the economic turmoil.

He also pointed out the relationship between the economy and suicide was complex and that downturns did not necessarily lead to an increase in the number of people taking their own lives.

“Firstly, it’s not at all clear what circumstances faced some of these individuals who have taken their own lives and if they were linked to the recession,” he said. “By putting a spotlight on them and linking them to the economic difficulties, we’re in danger of triggering a contagion for people in a similar crisis, who feel very desperate and feel they have few places to turn to.”

In a study examining suicide in Ireland between 1968 and 2000, there was no evidence to show that socio-economic trends were a driving force, he said. For example, he said, a mythology had grown up around high suicide rates and the Great Depression. In fact, he said, research indicates that suicide rates did not rise in the US during this time.

While those who are unemployed are at a higher risk of suicide, job losses in themselves did not cause suicide. Rather, a lack of support plays a much more important role.

Speaking following a conference on suicide organised by the bereavement group Console, he said there was a vital need for a “whole community” response to support and build resilience among people at risk of suicide.

“People who lose their jobs or are affected by the economic turbulence may feel like a failure or feel foolish and inadequate, but that is perfectly normal,” he said.

“But these problems can be addressed. It could be through talking to a GP or a friend. Even something as basic as a conversation can be very helpful. There is no shame in disclosing those kinds of feelings,” Dr Brophy said.

He said some groups were particularly vulnerable, such as young people who are facing into a difficult economic future and older people who have been laid off and feel they do not have many alternative economic prospects. “There is no reason to panic, but there is every reason to be prepared and to galvanise ourselves to look after those at risk,” he said.

He said it was positive to note that during great challenges, such as war or violence, society often tends to pull together.

“In the North, for example, the suicide rate was much lower during The Troubles than during peacetime. “It’s important for people to realise that this economic turmoil will pass and won’t go on forever. But it can seem inescapable if it is disproportionately presented.”

** For support, contact the Samaritans (1850-609090 or jo@samaritans.ie) or Aware (1890- 303302) or Console 1800-201890

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times