'I've lost my mother, father, brother and uncle': Calls for Northern Ireland public health emergency over suicide rates

  • Video report and article by ITV News Reporter Ben Chapman

"I lost my mum, my dad and my brother to suicide."

Like too many families, Andrew Hoy's is struggling to make sense of Northern Ireland's losing battle with suicide.

"When I was 16 my dad took his own life and that was a big shock because we'd never heard of suicide before this, where now all you hear about is suicide, suicide…"

The suicide rate in Northern Ireland is one of the highest in the world - people are twice as likely to kill themselves as in England.

In 2018, 307 people took their own lives.

That year, Andrew's brother Raymond was among them.

Within another year, his mother also became a victim of suicide.

"It was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do, to tell her he’d died.

"And I knew just by looking at her, that it would kill her.

"And it did."

Charities say Northern Ireland is in the midst of a mental health disaster.

On Tuesday they staged the latest in a series of protests outside Health Department offices in Belfast, urging ministers to declare it an emergency.

They want funding for mental health services to be increased, from around five percent of the overall health budget.

"It’s half of the budget for mental health in England," says Sara Boyce, one of the campaigners.

"Yet we have over 25% higher rates of mental ill health here and we have to start recognising the context: that we are a society coming out of conflict, with high levels of inter-generational trauma."

Andrew has lost both his father, Raymond, and mother, Sandra, to suicide.

The legacy of Northern Ireland’s Troubles may go some way to explaining the high suicide rate today.

Children who grew up in the shadow of violence in Belfast's most affected communities are three times more likely to take their own lives.

These are also some of the most deprived areas.

A lack of opportunity, and a recent renewal of paramilitary violence have only made things worse.

But speak to young people and they say there is another legacy - one of a government that didn't sit for three years, of underfunded and poor services.

Troops on duty beside barbed wire barriers in the Falls Road area of Belfast in 1969. Credit: PA

At the Quaker's Service on the edge of the city, 18-year-old Sean McQuade tells me "seven or eight" of his friends have taken their own lives.

"To us, it's normal," he says.

He is part of a project called "My Story Your Story", encouraging young people to open up about mental health problems, and campaigning for better education in schools.

But the teenagers talk of frustration when they do need help, of waiting months for mental health care.

A funeral procession for those who died on 'Bloody Sunday' lines the road leading from St Mary's Church, Creggan Hill. Credit: PA

Gerard Mullan, 17, has tried to take his own life twice.

"I waited a very long for counselling," he says.

"I'm only actually receiving help now.

"And I'm still on a list."

The Northern Ireland government acknowledges suicide rates are "unacceptably high".

The Health Minister Robin Swann said: "Suicide prevention is a priority for me personally and for my Department.

"This is evidenced by the publication of the Protect Life 2 Strategy in September 2019."

He says a Mental Health Action Plan is currently under consideration.

But the most personal of troubles are still claiming five more lives with every week that goes by.

Who to contact if you or someone you know needs help:

  • Samaritans operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year, by calling 116 123. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at jo@samaritans.org

  • Mind also offer mental health support between 9am and 6pm, Monday to Friday. You can call them on 0300 123 3393 or text them on 86463. There is also lots of information available on their website.

  • Northern Ireland residents can call Lifeline for free 24 hours a day on 0808 808 8000