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In Ireland, the suicide rate is declining, but among young males it is going up. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour

How the people of Limerick are battling a spike in suicide

The newer graves at Mount Saint Lawrence cemetery in the quiet outskirts of Limerick, Ireland, are easy to distinguish. They are mini carnivals of color; angel statues beam from beds of daisies, and in the corners, pinwheels spin. “A lot of young people are buried here,” a visitor notes to a groundskeeper who nods. “A lot of suicides,” he says.

If the city of Limerick were a beating heart, its main artery would be the Shannon River. It is a life source for generations of fishermen who hook salmon and pike. It is a source of fun for schoolchildren paddling kayaks.

But people in their darkest hours also “go to the river,” as the locals say, to end their lives.

•••

One of the scariest things in Limerick is the sound of the rescue helicopter flying overhead, Limerick Councilmember John Loftus said. “You think ‘oh no, there’s somebody in the river.’”

According to the National Office for Suicide Prevention’s latest figures, the suicide rate for Limerick was more than twice the national average between the years 2013 and 2015 (22.4 per 100,000 people, compared to 10.1 nationally). For comparison, the World Health Organization says the suicide rate worldwide is 16 of every 100,000 people — one person every 40 seconds. Across the U.S., the suicide rate is 13.026 per 100,000 people.

In Ireland as a whole, the suicide rate is slightly declining. But among males age 15 to 34, the rate is climbing, said Brendan Kelly, a professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin and consulting psychiatrist at Tallaght Hospital.

Alcohol and drugs might be drivers, along with peer pressure and bullying. Youth itself may even be a factor; a young person might not have reflected on the finality of death the way an older person has had time to do, Kelly said.

Loftus is among the city residents whose lives have been upended by suicide.

The upbeat Scotsman moved to the Republic of Ireland’s third largest city 17 years ago and gradually got involved in local politics. His wife is from Hungary and he likes to joke, with a nod to the Beatles, “She grew up with Lenin and Marx. I grew up with Lennon and McCartney.”

The city of 100,000 residents has come a long way, he says, since its days known as “stab city” for the gang violence of the 1980s, ’90s and even 2000s. Police have arrested many of the gang bosses and the streets feel relatively safer at night. Limerick has a growing immigrant population, mostly from Poland, along with other nations of the EU, Asia and Africa. It is a sports-loving town — everything from rugby to hurling — and the University of Limerick ranks among Ireland’s top 10 schools.

When talking about Limerick’s suicide rate, however, Loftus visibly deflates. He recalls the day his stepson killed himself seven years ago. “I’ve got two daughters. He was my son.” An avid musician, the young man returned from visiting friends in Hungary and killed himself a few weeks later. Like many families of suicide, Loftus didn’t see it coming. When he told his wife the crushing news, “she wanted to die, too.”

Nowadays, says Loftus, “we remember the funny, intelligent guy he was. That’s how you get through life.”

•••
Life preservers are located along the Shannon River in Limerick. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour

Life preservers are located along the Shannon River in Limerick. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour

In 2008, Nora Conway was working as a bereavement therapist and she noticed many clients were grief-stricken by suicide. “Families were doing everything they could to prevent suicide. As a society, I didn’t feel we were doing enough.”

She contacted Joan Freeman, the founder of Dublin’s Pieta House, which provides face-to-face counseling to people in suicidal distress. Conway told her Limerick needed its own chapter — in fact, she “demanded” it, Freeman recalled.

The community immediately got behind it, Conway said. “They wanted to look suicide in the eye. The rates at that particular time were very high and there weren’t enough services to respond to the need.” In December 2010, the Limerick center opened its doors with a staff of 15.

Soon, people were coming to the Limerick office from all over the region. So far, about 3,000 people, age 6 and up, have attended counseling sessions there.

“We’re helping people understand their emotions and not become overwhelmed by them. It involves recognizing the triggers and learning other ways to cope,” Conway said. “People we see here come to us with only reasons for dying. Our work is to help them look at reasons for living.”

Ireland has set up an office dedicated to suicide prevention, and local governments like Limerick help fund non-governmental groups, such as Samaritans, which runs a 24-hour hotline.

Pieta House now has 13 suicide and self-harm crisis centers around the country. It hosts “Darkness into Light” community walks to raise awareness and funds. “In order to lift the stigma around suicide and self-harm, we need to be aware. We need to talk about it,” said Conway.

There still is a stigma connected to suicide, although it’s diminished, said Kelly. Since 1993, suicide is no longer a crime in Ireland — which is why the preferred phrase is “died by suicide” rather than “committed suicide” — and it’s no longer regarded as a sin in the Catholic Church.

People contemplating suicide tend to close themselves off to others and lose interest in things that once brought them joy, Kelly said. They might give away possessions and become sleep-deprived.

Suicidal people get tunnel vision — or in more clinical terms “cognitive constriction” — a failure to see other options. Families often will ask why their loved one chose death rather than talking to them about their anguish, but over time the person loses sight of other options, he said. “They’re not choosing to die by suicide, they don’t see it as a choice. Their attitude of death is that it’s the only option.”

Even with increasing awareness, however, people still find it difficult to talk about suicide. Young males in particular tend not to seek help. They are five times more likely to choose suicide than females in their age range, said Dr. Cian Aherne, a clinical psychologist and clinical coordinator at Jigsaw Limerick.

Daragh De Klein (second from left) with his rowing teammates in Limerick. Photo by their coach Roger Kiely

Daragh De Klein (second from left) with his rowing teammates in Limerick. Photo by their coach Roger Kiely

Teenage males are just developing their identity and seeing social ideals of status, money and fame. But when they don’t achieve those goals, and realize life is much harder than they thought, they might feel like a failure and disconnected from society, Aherne said.

His organization provides free individual talk therapy for 12- to 25-year-olds at chapters across Ireland. Since the Limerick branch opened at the end of June, they have gotten 80 cases.

“We did not expect that many,” said Aherne. “I think parents are very relieved and grateful that they have somewhere that they can get their children some support on short notice” without needing a doctor’s order.

Actually listening to someone helps — but “often people will say “it’s not that bad,” or “that happened to me once, here’s what I did,” Aherne said. That can make people in distress feel like they’re not being heard. Instead, listen in a nonjudgmental way, ask direct questions and avoid clichés, his group recommends.

Anyone can lend a helpful ear, not just a trained professional. Daragh De Klein, a 16-year-old high school student in Limerick, said he is fortunate to know he can always turn to his friends. “I feel like we’re comfortable enough with each other that if there really was a problem they would mention it to me, or vice-versa.”

•••

The Limerick Suicide Watch headquarters is in a historically industrial part of town, mostly deserted on a rainy Saturday night in late June. Eight people suit up in tangerine jackets with glowing reflective trim. They buckle on life vests and flashlights, and pack first aid kits. A poster on the wall reads: “Life is what you make it.”

Members of Limerick Suicide Watch suit up to patrol the Shannon River for people in distress. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour

Members of Limerick Suicide Watch suit up to patrol the Shannon River for people in distress. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour

These volunteers — who alternate nights with another group in the city — are preparing to patrol the four bridges crossing the Shannon River. By foot or bike, the teams look for people who might be considering ending their lives in the river’s powerful current.

The patrols, which began in May 2016, receive the same suicide intervention training as police officers and fire and ambulance crews. They learn how to quickly connect with someone in a life-threatening situation and provide help.

In the past year, Limerick Suicide Watch has had more than 100 of what they call “interventions” with people in distress, said the group’s leader and lifelong Limerick resident Ger McNamara.

Limerick Suicide Watch helped more than 100 people over the past year who were at risk of suicide. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour

Limerick Suicide Watch helped more than 100 people over the past year who were at risk of suicide. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour

The suffering people he meets “may not have spoken to anybody. They may just have made the decision to end their lives within the previous couple of days or weeks prior to us finding them on the river’s edge,” he said. “They may open up to us, or they may not. Nine times out of 10 they will open up and speak to us.”

One of the other volunteers, Niamh Hastings, explains: “We ask them the hard questions that maybe a family member or friend wouldn’t ask them.” For instance, “‘Are you thinking about suicide?’ That would be very hard to say to somebody that you love,” said Hastings, who herself lost a loved one to suicide. “I know what it does when you enter that dark place.”

The group takes particular notice when someone walks alone by the river, rather than as a part of a group.

Sometimes people wander down to the river just to talk to the patrols. The team encourages it by posting on Facebook where they will be each night.

One man approaches the group. “Are you well?” a volunteer asks him.

“-ish,” he replies. He talks about the troubles in his life and then asks a rhetorical question: “When you save someone, are you saving a life or extending torment?”

Niamh Hastings is one of the volunteers who scouts the Shannon River for people who might be considering suicide. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour

Niamh Hastings is one of the volunteers who scouts the Shannon River for people who might be considering suicide. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour

They chat a bit until a call comes on the radio that a woman has just tried to run to the river, but has fallen on the slippery pavement before she can climb the railing. The volunteers race over to help. They treat her for some cuts and scrapes until an ambulance arrives.

Afterward, the patrols take a break and talk about what happened. They sip coffee and tea with milk, provided by a local restaurant for free as a show of gratitude. A new volunteer, Sean Sheil, said he expected such dramatic situations when he joined the group, but in responding to the woman who tried to jump, “I didn’t think I’d be so scared.” He shakes his head. “I couldn’t get over how quick she was.”

In an ideal world, McNamara says, the patrols would be able to bring troubled individuals directly to trained counsellors and psychologists, rather than turning them over to police or sending them to hospitals, which treat their visible wounds. “It can be a revolving door system at times,” he said. In some cases, after taking them to the hospital, “we see them the next night.”

Volunteer Maire Carroll describes an encounter during a patrol that’s stayed with her.

Maire Carroll, a lively volunteer in her 50s, has seen her share of attempted suicides and the tragedy of those who do end up taking their own lives, including her own cousin. The 27-year-old appeared to have everything going for her — good job, nice clothes, Carroll said. But unbeknownst to her parents, the woman was planning every detail of her funeral, including a video she wanted to show images from her life.

“It was such a shock,” said Carroll, who now dedicates several nights a week to the patrol. She sings the group’s praises but also recognizes the limits of their interventions. “We’re basically giving them another 24 hours with their family,” she said. “If you really want to take your own life, you will.”

There is no predictable pattern to the incidents, the volunteers say, though they do seem to come in waves. Maybe people see others doing it and it triggers something inside. High-risk times include Christmas, New Year’s Eve and other holidays that involve drinking.

Equally puzzling is why people sometimes use the river to seal their fate. The Shannon is the longest river in Ireland and gets its name from the Celtic goddess Sionna. As Hastings observes, “It’s there, and it’s bewitching.”

It is now 4 a.m., and the volunteers wrap up their Saturday night patrol. They walk back to home base, rain-soaked and relieved. They had no more interventions that night.

•••

For many years, if someone did “go to the river,” Tony Carmody, 55, would answer the call. He worked on a search and rescue team for three decades in Limerick and other cities in Ireland.

For local boatmen Tony Carmody (left) and Andrew Duhig, the Shannon River is a source of work and a place of fun. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour

For local boatmen Tony Carmody (left) and Andrew Duhig, the Shannon River is a source of work and a place of fun. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour

“What we did was easy. The hard part was meeting the family,” he said. “All they wanted was their loved one, their husband, their daughter or son. They just wanted them back, and that’s what we would do.”

Local fishermen, from long ago up to the present day, also have lent a hand in finding the bodies. They are intimately familiar with the tides, currents and mudflats. “They knew the river like the back of their hands, and they were always willing to help,” said Carmody.

Sharon Slater, a historian for the Limerick Archives, has interviewed hundreds of fishermen, first for her thesis and now for an archival project for the city. “There wasn’t as much of a rush for the fishermen to go out and look for the body if it was a suicide as opposed to an accident,” they told her. The response was quicker if someone fell off the pier or had an accident, which the town considered more “natural,” she said.

The Abbey men fished up river from Limerick City, and the Strand men fished down river (until 2006), according to historian Sharon Slater. Photo courtesy of the Limerick Archives

The Abbey men fished up river from Limerick City, and the Strand men fished down river (until 2006), according to historian Sharon Slater. Photo courtesy of the Limerick Archives

“I never treated them as suicide,” Carmody said. “Every person who went into the river as far as I’m concerned, fell in. I’m not there to judge these people, whether they jumped in. The way I looked at it, they fell in, they had an accident.”

On a recent overcast Monday, Carmody and another local boatman, Andrew Duhig, were chatting at the Curraghgour Boat Club. It was along this riverbank that Vikings came ashore in the 800s and eventually built a settlement. In Limerick, they staged their marine operations.

Limerick these days still suffers from a lingering reputation as a tough town, despite its efforts to clean up. The global downturn of 2008 delivered a gut-punch. Dell computer company closed its Limerick plant in 2009, and 1,900 workers lost their jobs.

“Limerick is not booming compared to what it was,” Duhig said. “Work has to come back. There are a lot of unemployed tradesmen.”

The city of Limerick now sees the Shannon River, once considered a gloomy place, as key to its revitalization. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour

The city of Limerick now sees the Shannon River, once considered a gloomy place, as key to its revitalization. Photo by Larisa Epatko/PBS NewsHour

Even health care professionals can’t tell who will take that final step. So the key is to address the possible contributing factors society-wide, like alcoholism, drug abuse, poverty and unemployment, and make sure counseling is available to everyone.

“There are a lot of disadvantaged areas in Limerick, and you have to wonder what kind of a part that plays,” Aherne said.

A 21-year-old member of the Limerick-based rap group Same D4Ence, who goes by the name Hazey Haze, said one of his friends tried to kill himself three times. “He was sick of whatever was going on. He didn’t really tell anyone about it.”

Haze and fellow band members Sizzler and MCB address the issue of suicide directly in one of their songs, “A Beauty Named Shannon.”

“The song brings you into the moment: ‘You can’t breathe … you can’t see.’” When someone dies by suicide, people often will ask, “Why would you do that to your family? There’s so much they left behind,” said Haze. “But you don’t know what’s going on in someone’s mind.”

Many consider the mighty Shannon as the heart of Limerick’s revitalization and sense of pride. The city has decked out the bridges with large planters of flowers. There’s talk of building a riverwalk. Over the past few years, city organizers have started enticing people into the river itself, with kayak rentals and organized weekly swims.

“Limerick built the city looking away from the river,” Carmody said. “It’s just starting to turn around.”

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