The hidden tragedy that has claimed more lives in peacetime Northern Ireland than 30 years of The Troubles

Mental health is one of those illnesses that’s hidden from view.

No one can see it and very few recognise the signs that someone is suffering.

Despite having the smallest population in the UK, Northern Ireland has the largest prevalence of mental illness.

There are 25 per cent more cases of mental health problems in Northern Ireland than in England. A tragic figure.

And what’s more tragic, is more people have died by suicide in the past 17 years than were killed during the 30 years of conflict - 4,400 took their own lives compared to 3,600 who died in The Troubles.

Conflict during the troubles, including the Omagh bombing in 1998, killed less people in 30 years than suicide has in 17. Credit: PA

There are a number of reasons for this; the most obvious being money.

Funding for mental health has dropped progressively in the past six years.

In 2012, 7.7 per cent of the health budget was spent on mental health, now the figure is somewhere around 6 per cent.

The Province spends less than half of England on supporting people with mental health problems and learning disabilities.

Now, with Stormont in disarray and a dissolved Executive the idea this will be resolved anytime soon is laughable.

Power-sharing in Stormont collapsed in January 2017 with the resignation of Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister. Credit: PA

In the absence of a working Assembly, chief executive of Action Mental Health charity, David Babington, wants Westminster to step in and act quickly.

He said: "I believe there is a mental health crisis in Northern Ireland and it starts at the top.

"We don't have an assembly for a start so there's no guidance there's no leadership and we've recently just been told there's a plan, but its a short term plan for five years, and then there's all the issue of resourcing as well and the resourcing needs to be put in place to really stop this salami slicing.

The other reason the number of mental ill health cases are so high, and one which is perhaps not quite so obvious, is the legacy of the Troubles.

David Babington wants Westminster to step in and help with Northern Ireland's mental health crisis. Credit: ITV News

One in three people affected by the conflict have tried to take their own lives. The violence, it seems, has had a hugely detrimental effect on the Province’s population and still resonates today.

Many of those involved in the Troubles still need medication for suicidal thoughts, linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Don’t forget we are years on from the Good Friday peace agreement. Twenty to be precise. Yet people are still suffering its affects.

Norma Patterson, chief executive of New Life Counselling who's been a counsellor for 20 years, says even having a family member incarcerated can have an effect on mental health.

Norma Patterson, who's been a counsellor for 20 years, knows only too well the effect trauma can have on mental health. Credit: ITV News

She said: "You have the high level trauma which will be post traumatic stress disorder.

"But then you have the lower level trauma that has impacted families who've maybe lost a relative or where they've had family members incarcerated or they've witnessed bombs or they've witnessed shootings and that has a huge impact on someone's life.

Yesterday, I met Peter. He suffers from depression, not due to the Troubles but because he has been unable to accept the suicide of his sister or the recent breakdown of his relationship. He too tried to kill himself.

He said: "I started drinking a lot more, then whenever I did drink more then started making me go to places that I didn't want to go to, which eventually led to me having a few failed suicide attempts."

Peter has had to rely on the Action Mental Health charity for support and care. He says he wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for them.

There are no easy answers to mental ill health. Northern Ireland has its own unique problems and those, along with the shocking reality that 22 per cent of the population live in poverty, make it even harder to solve.

  • If you are in distress or need some support, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day on 116 123 or you can visit their website here.