Fionnbarr Walsh said a programme such as the amber flag mental health initiative should be compulsory in every primary and secondary school and sporting club in the country.
“€22m is spent on road traffic prevention every year and just €7m is spent on suicide prevention. If you want to reduce suicide rates, it should be compulsory to have a mental health officer in every school, every club.
“The Government should pay for this officer to spend five hours a week with a school,” he said at the Irish Association of Suicidology conference in Killarney.
“After Elma and I visit a school as part of our Donal Walsh Foundation work, generally a few weeks after we leave, the teacher that organised the visit rings us to tell us that a couple of children have come forward seeking help, they tell us that these children seeking help ‘were the ones that would have gone under the radar’, that they ‘weren’t the ones they were looking out for’.”
Up to 500 people a year in this country die from suicide.
The amber flag initiative was set up by Suicide Aware. Any school, college or community organisation that flies the flag outside its building has demonstrated that it has a positive attitude to mental health awareness and is fighting to break stigma.
Mr Walsh also warned that while his son’s “faith journey” had given him much strength, he and his wife, Elma, have learnt from their Donal Walsh Foundation work, that many young people are seeking greater spirituality in their life.
“Young people aren’t without spirituality but in recent years, we [adults] seem to have lost the ability to harness and guide, probably because of our fear of interference by faith.
“It doesn’t matter which faith they follow, young people are seeking guidance for their spirituality and they see Donal as an example they can relate to.”
He said every community should be working to get “young people to seek help if they do find themselves in a dark place”.
“Every community should be involved in the amber flag scheme. Why are all schools and clubs not doing this? We need to train mentors, coaches, teachers to be open to listening to those who are struggling with their wellbeing,” he said.
“We advise young people to seek help if they do find themselves in a dark place, to use their friends to let people know if they can’t cope and if they really are their friends, to give them permission to find help for them through a guidance counsellor, teacher, a coach, chaplain or an adult relative.”
Kerry GAA mental health officer, Ned Brosnan, was another speaker at the event. He said that while clubs “react very well” if there is a suicide or attempted suicide in a community, it can be more difficult to “get them to engage around prevention and being pro-active”.
He said when he started the GAA programme, he emailed 75 clubs offering talks on mental health and just two clubs responded.