Boys aged 16-20 are four times more likely to take their own lives than older people, a major study on suicide in Ireland has found.
The research, which examined 12,000 suicides in Ireland and Britain, claims there is a “highly significant” risk associated with older male teenagers which has not been recognised in suicide prevention programmes.
The report, by Kevin Malone of UCD’s School of Medicine & Medical Science, revealed that up to 50% of all under-18 suicides may be part of a cluster.
“A young suicide death is a very powerful and destabilising social force,” said Prof Malone. “It can reverberate intensely in smaller closed communities such that the whole community is at an increased risk for at least a year and also at anniversaries.”
The report warns youth suicide rates have risen among males and females in the past 20 years, with Ireland now having the fourth highest level in Europe.
Current rates equate to the death of one child under 18 years by suicide every 18 days in the Republic, said Prof Malone.
He said an argument could be made that suicide prevention services might be “missing the boat” by not focusing on the 16-20 age group.
“A wave of young people is currently moving through Irish society where suicide rates among their peers have increased substantially from those of their parents,” said Prof Malone. The report’s findings meant a national analysis of psycho-education including mental health literacy should be conducted, he added.
He said screening for depression in children and teenagers should be considered, while suicide prevention programmes should be revised to address the needs of specific age groups.
The report also examined in detail the background to 104 suicide cases through research with families. It identified mental illness, and depression in particular, as a significant factor in youth suicide, while other factors including humiliation, bullying, and assaults.
Almost half of all those who died had been diagnosed with major depression. Alcohol was a factor in 50% of cases, while 40% had made a previous attempt.
The vast majority had died by hanging, while 42% left a suicide note. Around one quarter had given an unequivocal indication of their suicide intention in the month before their death, while another quarter of cases had given some hint about suicide.
Half of all suicide victims had reported a “significant interpersonal conflict” in the fortnight before their death, while 37% complained of feeling lonely.
Over 70% of families believed “more could have been done” to prevent their child from taking their life.
The report also documents the experiences of the same families, who were critical of support levels offered by many state services; many reported major difficulties in receiving proper healthcare and treatment.
Two thirds of families expressed a negative view of the health services. A fifth held negative views about justice services, including gardaí, especially in relation to insensitive communication in the aftermath of a death. In addition, 8% were negative about their children’s school and teachers.
The report also recommends the introduction of a confidential inquiry approach to enable healthcare professionals overcome their traditional defensive positions in the aftermath of any suicide death.
Noel Smyth, chairman of the suicide prevention charity 3Ts, which co-funded the research, called on the Government to establish a dedicated, independent suicide prevention authority modelled on a similar agency which has successfully tackle the problem of high road fatality rates.
Mr Smyth said the report’s findings were both enlightening and challenging for society’s understanding of suicide at many levels.
“The report is of no value unless we do something with it,” he said.
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