Suicide tends to be attributed either to a mental illness or ‘weakness’ which renders some people less able to cope with the pressures of living than others, or to a “mystery,” observes Costigan, co-author of a thought-provoking new book on the subject.
But that’s wrong, says the former therapist, adding that after two years of research she and her fellow author have concluded that suicide is actually the result of intolerable emotional and psychological pain inflicted on ordinary people by a complex mix of factors rooted in the sick society or ‘suicide box’ in which they live.
Ours is a culture, she says, which insidiously poisons us through a mix of formal social structures ranging from social media to politics, the law, education and economic policies.
Irish society is ruled by an obsession with social media, appearance, status, wealth and marketing - but also one, she warns, which lacks any real emotional education or moral and spiritual guidance.
Costigan and her co-author Anthony Walsh, a retired member of the Irish Prison Service, compiled what they call a “spectrum of human pain,” which ranges from suicide right through to “absolute self-care.” And, as Costigan points out, there’s a lot more suicide out there than absolute self-care.
In Ireland, given difficulties with reporting and the length of time it takes to hold an inquest, accurate suicide statistics are not readily available.
“However, we believe we’re looking at an approximate figure of 525 which varies every year,” says Costigan.
“We also looked at the number of people in this country who attend Accident and Emergency after self-harming,” she says - 9,500 people annually.
Next they examined the estimated number of people in Ireland whose suspected self-harming is believed to go unreported – 60,000.
Add to that the World Health Organisation statistics showing that up to 25% of the total population suffer from depression.
“Why is there so much emotional pain?” she asks.
After much research, the duo concluded that, although individual reasons may be infinite, the deep-rooted causes of suicide lie within society’s beliefs and practices.
Most of us unconsciously believe in accepted social norms.
Therefore they say, any failure to fit in with those norms identifies an individual as flawed or inferior in some way.
“When people feel they have to hide their true identity because they don’t fit into society, suicide may become an option to take away the pain of isolation.” Such factors include the strain on young people, which they describe as “complex and manifold,” from the pressure to excel at school to the all-pervasive nature of social media which, as we’re uncomfortably aware, forces our young people to conform in terms of looking well, wearing expensive clothes and being sexually active and available, even if they don’t feel ready.
Ireland has been ranked in the top 10 happiest nations in the world, - yet it has the second-highest suicide rates in Europe for males up to 19 years of age, and the highest rate for female suicides in the same age group.
Their research also debunked the myth that young males are more vulnerable to suicide than females.
Men are simply more likely to be successful in their suicide attempts, because they choose more lethal methods, such as drowning or hanging, she says bluntly.
Women actually attempt suicide more often than men, but choose less lethal methods such as a drugs overdose, so there’s a greater likelihood that they will be saved.
Costigan points to a 2004 study which showed the incidence of attempted suicide by females was 19% more than males when the entire population was considered - and 17% higher than males for those over 15 years of age.
These statistics indicate that if women chose more lethal methods, a far more serious phenomenon of female death by suicide would prevail.
Among the range of factors examined by the duo was the huge strain inflicted on many people by the 2008 recession in which thousands lost their jobs or were evicted from their homes.
A recent international study suggests that that global economic crisis may be responsible for a surge in suicide rates in 27 European countries, due to high rates of unemployment.
They also examined the impact of the decline of religion which, as Costigan points out, certainly had its disadvantages, but which offered solid support and moral guidance to many.
“We have lost that spiritual awareness or guidance - religion provided structures that acted as a support or a community for many people.” In total, their research unveiled an unrelenting pressure on people’s emotional, psychological and financial well-being.
“Suicide is often attributed to an inner mental health problem in the person, or to their failure to cope with the stresses of life,” she reports, “but when we dug deeper we found that the stresses came from a major social base - the very complicated society in which we are now.” The Suicide Box is a strong metaphor for that society, she says.
“We’re trapped in social structures that weaken us, particularly if we’re not fitting in as society demands.” And while that was always the way, she feels that it’s even worse now because, despite its so-called freedoms, the system in which we live is more inflexible, pervasive and unforgiving than ever before.
“We may not be aware of the toll that it’s taking bit by bit on different parts of society.
‘I FELT IF I WAS TO DISAPPEAR OFF THE THE FACE OF THE EARTH, I WOULDN’T BE MISSED’
I was 22 when I attempted suicide. I’d been depressed for several months at the end of 2007, and following the difficult break-up of a relationship in early 2008 it got worse.
I felt that if I was to disappear off the face of the earth, I wouldn’t be missed.
At the time of the break-up, I was living with my mum and Dad. But neither of them, knew what was going on and nor did my best mate.
Men in this country aren’t allowed to show any emotion so I never told anyone what was happening to me.
I kept a brave face and I got on with life. People who knew me just saw the normal, bubbly happy Damian, pulling jokes and being himself.
I was what people expected me to be, but inside I felt terrible. I felt like I was dying inside.
I couldn’t express what I felt because I thought people would laugh at me for having psychological problems.
I kind of kept everything bottled up and didn’t speak to anyone about how I was feeling. I was a courier at the time and I spent a lot of time on my own, on the road, over-thinking, over-working and generally isolating myself. Nobody knew or even suspected. I was tired all the time and extremely stressed. I wasn’t sleeping too well either. I eventually stopped caring about the consequences of my actions.
I’d no regard for the law or for authority; I stopped caring about life and about myself.
I wanted to die. I kept it all in; plodded along, and then one evening following an argument with someone I tried to commit suicide.
It was January 2008 and I got into a car and drove through Dublin city centre recklessly. Incredibly, nothing happened although I went through several red lights.
A garda car chased me down and arrested me for dangerous driving. I laughed uncontrollably. I wasn’t myself. I told them to take me to the garda station and I said I was going to kill myself as soon as they let me go.
They brought me to the garda station. It took five gardaí to restrain me.
I was put into a cell on suicide watch and they asked if I wanted a doctor or if I wanted to call anyone and I said ‘no’.
After a while I started to think about my baby son and I realised I didn’t want him to grow up without a dad or to grow up getting false information about who I was.
“So then I realised I needed help and I asked the gardaí to call my best mate and he brought me home. The gardaí treated me very well, but after I came home I just went to bed. I felt embarrassed and ashamed and felt I’d let everyone down.
When my mam came in I couldn’t look her in the eye but I said ‘Mam I need help.’ “My mam and dad helped me to get in touch with Pieta House and I got counselling and was in therapy for 12 months.
“I also received a lot of crucial support from Console and it all got me back on my feet. Without those services I wouldn’t be alive today. I’ve written a book about my experiences which I hope to get published.”
Music and TV star Niall ‘Bressie’ Breslin will share the stage with some of the world’s most influential minds at Console’s upcoming annual conference.
The Console World Suicide Prevention Day Conference 2015 takes place on Thursday September 10 at the Aviva Stadium Conference Centre. Full booking details for the conference are available on www.console.ie.
Console 24-hour helpline : 1800 247 247 or visit www.console.ie
Pieta House – www.pieta.ie