His comments on suicide have caused controversy but coroner Terence Casey tells Deirdre Walsh we need to be more open
FOR Terence Casey, coroner for south and east Kerry, suicide is the worst. It’s not the first time he’s spoken to the media about such matters, but over the course of ten years in the job, there’s a perceptible weariness in his voice.
“I wouldn’t call it difficult. I would call it depressing rather than difficult, because you come across a lot of hardship, a lot of suffering. Some nasty cases of cars accidents and things like that.
“Suicide is the worst. It’s those who are left behind you feel for. They try to blame themselves for what they didn’t see was going to happen; what they could have done if they had seen. There’s an awful lot of blame there. Suicide is the hardest one of them all.”
It’s not that he objects to having his opinions sought, yet again. It’s more a general sense of despair that no matter how often he and others like him speak publicly on this most sensitive of subjects, the tragedy continues. He sighs as he consults his notes, to check just how many lives have been lost in his area in the past 11 months. It makes for grim reading. Twelve lives lost so far this year in this particular part of Kerry, half of those under the age of 30.
What's your relation to suicide? For me, it's the passion to let people know there are alternatives. To educate. What's yours?— Suicide Aware (@SuicideAware) October 25, 2011
With the numbers equally worrying in the other half of the county, it’s no surprise that Kerry was recently highlighted as having one of the highest suicide rates in Ireland.
Casey is heartened by the efforts being made by the group Be Aware Prevent Suicide, set up in his native Killarney. But he’s concerned that when the subject is debated at both national and local level, the emphasis is almost always on the young.
“There is a perception out there that it’s only the young who commit suicide. But I found back in 2011, I had more people over the age of 60 committing suicide, than I had under the age of 30.
“I feel there’s an older generation now committing suicide, which is sad. When you consider that someone has spent 60 years in this life, and suddenly turns to committing suicide, something must be drastically wrong.”
Loneliness and rural isolation are largely the causes, he feels.
“I put it down to loneliness more than anything else. And I’ve said it openly in my Coroner’s Court. There’s a lack of communication between neighbours. When you think about it, the farmer used to go to the creamery every day, meet his neighbours and talk. The postman used to come to the door – now he only comes to the bottom of the lane. And they can’t go out and have a couple of pints, because they’re afraid of drunk driving. So I think isolation and loneliness has a lot to do with it, with the older generation.”
He says people are less inclined to examine the reasons why an older person might take their own life.
“I think it’s hidden under the carpet more. With someone over 30 committing suicide, it’s not peer pressure, it’s not bullying. It could be the recession, it could be lack of money. It could be a million and one things. It’s very hard to pinpoint.”
While keen to shine the spotlight on this older section of society, he has theories — some controversial — as to why younger people are taking their own lives.
“Peer pressure has a lot to do with it. I think the lack of respect for one’s life is another thing. The lack of respect for one’s neighbour’s property, for one’s own property, for one’s own life, has gone downhill over the past 10, 15 years.
“We no longer have the same respect for our neighbour. We don’t have the same respect for the Gardaí. I think it’s something that has to be brought back — more respect for your life, your family and the rest of it.
“Personally, I think the day we got rid of corporal punishment, was the downfall of a lot of things. The respect for your neighbour’s property has gone out the door, since corporal punishment went out the door.
“We were afraid of getting a slap when we went to school. We were afraid of getting a beating from our parents if we did something wrong. That no longer happens. I don’t think you can blame parents or blame schools. I think there’s just a general lack of punishment.”
So what, as a society, can we do to stop this worrying loss of both older and young lives to suicide?
A good start could be made, he feels, by more widespread publication of helpline numbers.
“Most suicides take place between 10 o’clock at night and 10 o’clock in the morning. At that time, you don’t know where to look for a phone number. Even though you might see a phone number in the paper now and again, it’s not something that registers with you, at the time when you need it.
“But if that number was made more prevalent, if it was everywhere, then those that are thinking about suicide, could reach out and reach somebody, just to talk to them. Then I think you would cut down the suicide rates.
“I have suggested that you make those numbers available in the back of every pub door, in every restaurant, in taxies, in chippers, everywhere you can think of. Even on the back of beer mats.
“I think those numbers should be everywhere. So when someone is really feeling low, they can get that number easily. They’re not going to ring up an exchange looking for that number.”
Why is he so vocal, so passionate about the subject?
“I felt, when I started speaking about suicide, that someone had to speak about it, because it was hidden, it was swept under the carpet. There’s a stigma attached to it. A stigma that shouldn’t be there any longer, but is.
“Until it comes out in the open, and people are willing to talk about it and discuss it, I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere, it’s going to go downhill. So that’s why I started talking about it, and why a lot of other people are now talking about it.”
Casey’s openness on the subject has landed him in trouble. He admits to receiving a number of nasty letters every time he goes public with concerns about Kerry’s growing suicide rate.
“I put it down to cranks to a certain extent. They haven’t been there, they don’t know the whole story. They don’t see what I see. And they jump on the bandwagon.
“You get crank letters. They say I’m not a psychiatrist, that I don’t know what I’m talking about because I never attempted suicide. They say I shouldn’t comment.
“There was one comment I passed, where I said that if only those who committed suicide could see what I see, the pain and the misery and the suffering left behind, they probably wouldn’t do it.
“I’ve been reported to the Department of Justice for making comments like that. The Department asked me for a report, I reported back and they accepted it, and that was that. But they still had to go through the procedures and investigate.”
Casey shrugs when asked if this angered him in any way. After ten years as Deputy Coroner, and a further decade as Corner, he admits that there are obvious downsides to the job, and days when it weighs heavily on him.
“I’ve learned to live with it, to a certain extent. But what does get to me, is when I’m sitting in my Coroner’s Court, when I see six or seven families all weeping, all blaming themselves, it does get to you. It’s the hardest part of it.”
It is the suffering of those families that makes him ever more determined to speak out, despite crank letters or official complaints to his superiors.
“It won’t stop me speaking out. I will not stop, because I think the more people speak about it, the less suicides we’ll have.”
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