People are dying, you bigoted fucks
Content Warning: suicide
More people in Northern Ireland have died by suicide since the end of The Troubles than were killed during the conflict itself.
Between 1969 and 1997 an estimated 3,600 people were killed in shootings, bombings and other attacks. Between 1998 and 2018 around 4,500 suicides were registered in Northern Ireland. The collapse of the talks at Stormont only goes to show where our politicians' priorities lie.
Northern Ireland’s suicide rates are significantly higher than in the rest of the UK. There are many different factors that influence people's mental health and in Northern Ireland we often point to poverty and deprivation as key causes. However, while poverty and deprivation is undoubtedly affects mental health, they are not the only factors. Wales has the highest rate of poverty in the UK - as high as 25% according to The Joseph Rowntree Foundation - but it has the lowest rate of suicide. Clearly there are other factors at play in Northern Ireland’s mental health crisis.
There is a fundamental dislocation between our understanding of “history” and the reality facing young people in Northern Ireland today. The “armed conflict” stage of the troubles may be over but the healing and rebuilding is still only just beginning. We always talk about of the ‘legacy’ of the troubles and the impact it has had on politics in Northern Ireland, but the discussion rarely focuses in on the lasting impacts that the conflict has had on mental health.
A uniquely Northern Irish issue with mental health treatment comes from how we continue to frame that history. Even the euphemistic phrase “The Troubles” serves to undermine the seriousness and significance of armed conflict. We should make no mistake - The Troubles were a civil war. Fought on a guerrilla basis by irregular and non-uniformed soldiers maybe, but a war nonetheless.
War is violent and chaotic, and the physical effects are well documented.But there is also a significant impact on the mental health of those involved. We haven’t come much further from the days of “shell-shock” disguising real trauma in WWI. It is estimated that a British soldier dies by suicide every two weeks; in 2013/2014 the leading cause of death in the US military was suicide - account for 3 out of every 10 deaths. Current analysis estimates 20 US military veterans die by suicide daily.
The horrors that come with war aren’t limited to combat. When we also consider what it was like to live with the anxiety of fearing the next attack or of being interned, or even just worrying about your loved ones every time they go outside creates a significant mental and physical toll.
The high rates of suicide in Northern Ireland can clearly be seen as a connection to the lasting impact of the troubles. Even to this day, Northern Ireland can be a stressful place to live. Although we are in relative safety, it is not pleasant to walk through the streets of the ‘other’ community and see murals and signs explicitly against ‘your people’. The continued gridlock at Stormont and the bigoted attitudes of the DUP contribute to a society and political culture that is not friendly, is not based on cooperation but on pig-headed stubborn ‘us-vs-them’ attitudes.
Just recently we wrote about Cllr Dale Pankhurst’s attempt to get local activist Malachai O’Hara fired from the board of the mental health charity he worked for after he voiced serious and legitimate concerns over the impact of the DUP policies on young LGBTI+ people's mental health.
It is clear that the impact of The Troubles is having an effect on young people's mental health. People are dying while politicians are in gridlock at Stormont. Mental health charities have highlighted that the drop in their funding has caused them to reach breaking point. It is clear that Arlene Foster would rather see the death toll of young Northern Irish women and men continue to climb higher and higher than see a bilingual street sign or two people of the same sex getting married.
A note from the author:
Despite the negligence caused by politicians and their refusal to work together, there are countless organisations working tirelessly to help those with mental health issues in Northern Ireland.
Asking for help with mental health is nothing to be ashamed of. When I was most at need I was unaware of the fact that the NHS has a dedicated Mental Health Crisis Team. Fortunately for me, my brother is a doctor and was able to assist me in getting the help I needed. Not everyone is so lucky. Despite recent right-wing trends that attempt to undermine mental health issues as symptoms of our soft modern lives and upbringings, depression and suicide are as old as time itself. Antidepressants and other medications can do wonders for people especially when combined with appropriate counselling and therapies. Taking medication for mental health is not a weakness any more than taking paracetamol when you have headache is. Unfortunately; while Stormont talks stall and mental health services continue to buckle under the strain, people will continue to die.
You are not wrong, you are not bad, and you are not hopeless. Help is there for you.