Suicide: Moyle

Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:00 pm on 11th December 2012.

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Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin 4:00 pm, 11th December 2012

The proposer of the topic will have 15 minutes.  The Minister will have 10 minutes to respond and all other Members who are called to speak on this occasion will have up to eight minutes.

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.  This is the last debate of the year, and I start by wishing all Members a very happy and safe Christmas and new year.

I recently visited a group in my constituency called Surviving Our Loss After Suicide (SOLAS).  It is in the process of setting up a facility to service the needs of the community in Moyle.  It is always good to see such services being set up, especially in the community and voluntary sector.  You have to realise the amount of work that is invested in those groups.  People give of their time for no financial benefit whatsoever; rather, they do so in response to the needs of their community.  That is something that we need to recognise and support, especially financially.

SOLAS was set up in response to the rising suicide rate in the district of Moyle, in particular over a four- or five-year period when there was a significant spike in the number of suicides.  In 2006, for example, the number of suicides in Moyle per 100,000 people was 24·2, compared with an average of 16·7.  In 2007, it was 24, as against an average of 13·8; in 2008, it was 23·7, as against an average of 15·9; and, in 2009, it was 23·7, as against an average of 14·5.  Therefore, the number of suicides there was significantly higher than the average rate of suicide across the North.  Indeed, out of the 26 districts, it was the third highest, coming behind only Belfast and Strabane.

In 2010, the year after the rate per 100,000 people was at 23·7, the group was set up, and it has since delivered education and training and hosted a series of public talks on mental and emotional health.  Its primary focus has been on health and well-being and it has provided accredited suicide-awareness and prevention training.  That approach is very holistic.  It creates a sense of community and encourages longer-term involvement.  It helps to reduce any individual sense of stigma and overcomes any reluctance to engage.  It assists individual capacity-building and limits dropout rates, with a consequential positive and sustainable impact on community health.

Of course, Moyle is very much a small rural community.  It is a smallish district by population size when compared with that of the North.  It is to be welcomed that the suicide figures have reduced in the past two years, but we cannot be complacent.  We need to look at the service provision there and at what we are doing right and then build on it.  We need to ensure that there is more awareness of suicide so that people might be able to spot the telltale signs.  In particular, what many find in rural and farming communities is a reluctance among many males in particular to open up and discuss their problems.  I am sure that the Ulster Unionist Member is aware of that as well. 

We need to address and change that culture so that we can reduce the occurrences of suicide. 

I believe that the voluntary organisations that deal with suicide and assist in maintaining people's mental health need all the help that they can get from the Assembly, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and any other sources of finance.  I received training in suicide awareness from the Public Initiative for the Prevention of Suicide and Self-harm (PIPS) in Belfast a number of years ago, and, from a personal perspective, I thought that it was excellent.  It gave me a greater awareness and understanding of suicide, and it enabled me to identify the telltale signs, including the fact that, when people talk about taking their own life, you always have to take that seriously and act on it.  That training and that body of work needs to be rolled out across the North, particularly to our young people, as that is key to changing the culture.

Of course, we have to consider the present economic situation.  As we discussed today, a lot of businesses and a lot of people are under stress and cannot see a way out of their situations, which could be related to social or business situations.  Ultimately, that puts enormous pressure on their mental health.  Therefore, the services that organisations such as SOLAS provide are all the more important.


We have seen a startling rise in the number of suicides across the North over the past 20 years.  In 1991, the number of suicides was 148.  It more than doubled in 2010 to 313, and that is quite alarming.  The services provided in Moyle, whether through SOLAS, the suicide prevention development officers who also carry out good work, the Northern Trust and others, are all important.  However, we need to ensure that they get all the support that they need and that they receive adequate support from the Department of Health in particular. 

SOLAS plays a key role in that.  It is a relatively young organisation, but it is making an impact in Ballycastle and the wider Moyle area and is still growing and developing.  I know that there are other services related to suicide prevention that it wants to establish, but it is not in a position to do that yet.  It will need support from public agencies to be in a position to do that in the near future, and I sincerely hope that it gets the support to do that.  It is also tying in with the Hope Centre in Ballymena, which other Members will be aware of.  The Hope Centre has a particular focus on drugs, a problem that is intertwined with the mental health issue.  It is important that relationships are built up between organisations and that there is that degree of flexibility.  Ballycastle and the Moyle area are pretty much cut off from the rest of the North, and it is important that we have imaginative solutions to service provision in that area. 

I thank the House for giving me the opportunity to discuss this issue.  I recognise the fact that the Minister has put a particular focus on the issue of suicide.  However, we need to ensure that, in rural areas such as Moyle, where we have seen a significant spike in the rate of suicide in recent years, support is given to organisations such as SOLAS.  That support needs to be sustainable and it should guarantee that that service, which is at the heart of Moyle and Ballycastle, is built on and supported in the years to come.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP 4:15 pm, 11th December 2012

I thank the Member for North Antrim for securing this important Adjournment debate.

Members have had a bad press recently because so few have attended some debates in the House.  I want to send out a message to the representatives of SOLAS, who I think are in the Gallery, and to the people of Ballycastle that this is no reflection on their work or on the seriousness with which we take the issue.  It is important that we can use the Adjournment debate facility to raise important and specific constituency issues such as this.

Daithí has already recognised that Moyle has the third-highest suicide rate in Northern Ireland per hundred thousand of population.  That is taken on a five-year rolling average between 2006 and 2010  It is a sad statistic.  We can quote other statistics, and I know that they have been quoted.  Northern Ireland had the highest suicide rate, compared with Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, in 2010.  There were 128 registered suicides in Northern Ireland in 1992, and that rose to 313 in 2010, which was an increase of 145%.  Those are the statistics and numbers that are often used in information packs and debates such as this.  However, when we talk about suicide, we have to realise that each one of those figures is an individual.  It is a family; it is a wider community; it is a church group; it is a young farmers' group; it is every group and individual that that person affected during his or her life.  This place, and we as MLAs, have to support, and should be supporting, the work of SOLAS and other organisations as they take forward their important work.

SOLAS was established in 2010.  The way in which it measured the suicide rate was a barometer of poor emotional health, and that is what challenged SOLAS.  So far, it has delivered education and training and promoted good mental and emotional health.  To date, SOLAS has run yoga sessions, SOLAS walks and exercise boot camps, and it has accredited its volunteers into the training and advice that has been mentioned.  We have to acknowledge that: they are all volunteers.

My party colleague Councillor Sandra Hunter, the chairman of Moyle District Council, has paid particular interest and has been very supportive of the group.  Wayne Soutter is also looking to do a bit of fundraising for SOLAS.  He was the first man to swim from the Mull of Kintyre to Kenbane Head in Ballycastle.  That was quite a challenge.  With that sort of support behind it, SOLAS will hopefully be able to raise its profile and much-needed funding.  As I said, the people involved are doing it completely voluntarily.

As a fledgling group, SOLAS has shown a mature approach to what it is doing, because it has looked for the partnership, for instance, of the Hope Centre in Ballymena in my North Antrim constituency, which I recently visited.  A good friend of mine, Joe Boyd, is a director of the Hope Centre.  When we consider the work that it is doing in comparison with and in conjunction with what SOLAS intends to do, we see that changes in the funding arrangements for voluntary organisations are having a dramatic effect on their provision.  Earlier, we talked about changes in economic welfare and the upcoming changes to social welfare.  They will put a greater stress on the most vulnerable in society.  That is where the provision and support mechanisms of SOLAS and the Hope Centre are able to support the vulnerable in the community and their families.  They need support, before and after, as well.

We spoke about other backup organisations and the service provision that is needed.  We spoke about the suicide prevention officers in the Northern Health and Social Care Trust and the contribution of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to addressing rural poverty.  It is about getting that joined-up approach — we often talk about that here — so that we can deliver and support the most vulnerable in society.  It is about the wee touches by voluntary organisations such as SOLAS and Good Morning Ballycastle.  That phone call in the morning can often make a difference to one person's life.  As they sit there, they realise that somebody out there cares and is listening to them.

Before coming to this place, I was director of an organisation called Rural Support, which was set up at the time of foot-and-mouth disease, specifically to provide signposting for farmers who felt that they were under increased financial and mental stress.  I worked through cases brought in by the volunteers, and it made me aware of the stresses, strains and hardships facing individuals and families at the time.  Usually, they were the individuals and families below the surface, people whom you do not notice in everyday life.  A farmer stands in a corner of the market yard, laughing and joking, but, inside, he is really hurting and struggling with what he has to deal with every day.  He then takes that stress back to his family, who know what is happening, and there are pressures at home as well. 

I will finish by thanking the Member for securing this Adjournment debate.  I thank the Minister for attending and listening and for the support that he has given, and I thank Members for coming into the Chamber.  I pay tribute to the volunteers and organisations who give up their time to try to make a difference in people's lives.

Photo of Conall McDevitt Conall McDevitt Social Democratic and Labour Party

It is a great honour to be able to join colleagues from North Antrim for this debate.  The SDLP is temporarily absent from the House in a representative capacity for that constituency, but I am sure that we will put that right in the fullness of time.  I thank Mr McKay for securing a debate on suicide.  No matter what government do or how hard government work, it would never quite be enough.  However, what is notable about the past decade here in Northern Ireland is the number of local groups and initiatives that emerged from the communities most affected by suicide.  Notable, too, is the power of those groups to identify at-risk individuals, to put support frameworks in place and to be a visible and present bulwark against the conditions that lead people to want to take their life.  From what I have heard this evening, SOLAS seems to be such a group.  It is a group rooted firmly in its community, with a deep commitment to its community, to community safety and to the protection of its members from self-harm and, obviously, suicide. 

It is always worth remembering that suicide is the last link in a chain of failures.  When you look at any case of suicide, the failures are often not just by the state, by the family, by the individual or by society.  The failures are complex and often involve many people just not stepping up to the mark when they should have.  It is very difficult to live with such a failure, and practically everyone in the House, given the jobs that we do, has been touched at some point by an encounter that caused us to reflect because, months later, we hear of an individual making a bad decision and possibly taking his or her life.

I join Mr McKay in acknowledging the support that several NGOs provide to us through training and capacity building.  Their support means that we are at least better able to deal with issues such as suicide and slightly more able to identify very vulnerable people when they come into contact with us. 

It seems right, in a debate on suicide, to talk a little bit about some of the practical obstacles that still exist at government level.  One that remains important to me concerns coronial services, specifically the coroner's role and the determination of death by suicide.  I know that the Minister feels quite strongly about that, and I welcome his commitment.  However, I hope that he will take the opportunity, in his response to the debate, to update the House on any progress being made on trying to iron out the issue because settling the cause of death can be a complicated and difficult period for the surviving members of a family.

Another really important issue is that of moving all of those groups that sprung up all over the region in the past decade from being voluntary groups, which have the best of intentions at heart and bid for basic funding to be able to get through the week and the year, into groups that actually have the capacity to do a bit more and to move to the next level and to think about how we can tap into the social capital that is out there.  Again, when you read 'Transforming Your Care', you see a great opportunity to tap into that social capital and to be able to provide groups that are active at community level with the ability to be involved more formally in the provision of health and social care services in the future.  So many groups that are involved in suicide awareness and protecting people from self-harm are great candidates for that.  Undoubtedly, however, there is quite a bit of work to do to be able to identify individuals in those groups who might wish to take on a more structured and professional role, and then to ensure that the support and resources are available for them to be able to fulfil that role in the future.

Essentially, those were the points that I wanted to make.  It really is a pleasure to come to the House for an Adjournment debate.  I am never surprised that so many Adjournment debates deal with health issues.  It reminds us just how important the NHS and all of the social care infrastructure around its edges, provided by the state and voluntary organisations, are to people.  I simply thank the House for giving me the opportunity to participate.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I apologise to the Member who brought the Adjournment topic to the House for not being present at the commencement of his contribution.  I thank him for tabling the debate this evening. 

When we come to this issue, it is a solemn and sad reminder to us all that life is a small, thin thread.  Regrettably, in the media this week, there was the very public example of the death of the lady who worked in the hospital in London.  It is a sad reminder to us that we are dealing with something that is immense in its impact and devastating to a family and to those who are associated with that family.  With great sympathy and understanding, as the last Member mentioned, we can all give examples from our own experience of people who have seen no other way but to end their lives in that manner.  It is coming up to Christmas now.  Christmas Day two years ago was probably one of the most solemn that I have spent.  A young man from the village of Dervock tragically took his own life.  He was buried in my constituency, in the Moyle District Council area.  His name was Billy.  It reminds us all of the family and circumstances that were so affected by that particular tragedy.

I was somewhat alarmed to see that the comparators show Moyle to have the third highest rate in Northern Ireland, behind only Strabane and the Belfast City Council area.  We wait to hear what the Minister has to say about the work that has been done or is ongoing to try to ensure that we do not just read statistics.  Over the past 20 years, the suicide rate in Northern Ireland has risen.  That is of great concern to us all.  When you come to a specific local area, such as Moyle or North Antrim, you need to ask what we are doing to ensure that we access those who are near to or would contemplate taking their own lives.  That is why the work of Solas and a variety of other organisations is so important.

I also think of the work carried out in our schools through pastoral care:  and as the Chair of the Education Committee, I speak with some degree of insight and, I trust, interest.  I think of the example of the postbox system used in Ballycastle High School, which is a very good process for identifying young people with particular problems and issues, which, if unaddressed and ignored, would ultimately lead to their taking their life.

We need to ensure that this is an issue not just for the Health Minister, who, I am glad, is with us this evening.  I do not say this because, politically, it is about sharing the responsibility or blame; what we need to have in Northern Ireland is an assurance that our Departments, whoever the Minister is or whatever political party has responsibility for a Department, are working collectively to ensure that whatever the strategy is, it is implemented in the most effective way to deliver the right outcome.  That is why I thank the Minister for his support for suicide prevention, including the £6·7 million for the suicide prevention fund, £2·2 million of which goes to the work of the community and voluntary sector.

It is easy for us to come to the House and give such figures.  However, as my colleague the Member for North Antrim said, behind all those figures are real people and real lives.  In Ballymena, in the southern part of the North Antrim constituency, we know all too well the devastating impact of suicide on young people of school age.  That was a very trying and difficult time for us all a few years ago.

We come to the House this evening with a sense of humility.  This issue is very serious and needs to be dealt with in a sensitive way.  It needs to be debated, and I welcome the fact that very early in the new Assembly term, on Suicide Prevention Day, Mr Rogers from South Down tabled a motion that got the support of the House.  So, the issue is not being ignored.

Going back to the local scenario, the work carried out by Moyle community safety partnership is to be welcomed.  I think that more needs to be done on a local basis.  That is why it is important that the Minister listens to people in areas where there are particular needs.  Through the work of the trusts, the voluntary and community agencies, the council and public representatives, we continue to ensure that those statistics are not repeated and are, in fact, reduced; that we have proper means and methods in place to address the concerns; and that, as the Member for South Belfast said, the last link in the chain of failure is broken.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 4:30 pm, 11th December 2012

First, I apologise for not being here at the outset of Mr McKay's speech.  I have had a very busy and trying day.  I thank the Member for proposing this topic for the Adjournment debate.  I have been impressed by the valuable contributions this afternoon, and I hope to respond to some of the issues raised.

Despite my Department investing £32 million in suicide prevention over the past six years, suicide in Northern Ireland remains stubbornly high, at around 300 deaths per annum.

The expert view is that, had we not made that investment, we would be in a considerably worse place, so I welcome the fact that we do make that investment because it is essential.  We need to be wise about how we use that investment to ensure that we get the best value for money and it is most effective in reducing the number of suicides in Northern Ireland each year.  The investment supports a range of evidence-based interventions to prevent suicide.  I have no doubt that lives have been saved.  The situation would have been worse had we not done that.

Suicide is a complex issue and has many influencing factors.  Although front line services to help people who are in emotional distress or are actively suicidal remain vital, significant inroads into our high suicide rate will be made only when we successfully address the social factors that contribute to suicide.  That means addressing social deprivation, ensuring that every child has the best possible start in life, reducing substance and alcohol misuse and violence, improving community cohesion and enhancing the psychological resilience of those in vulnerable groups.

Suicide rates are generally highest in urban areas, especially in deprived urban areas, but rural areas face specific challenges as well, including social isolation, difficulty in accessing services, growing emigration and increasing deprivation as a result of the recession.  Many people in rural communities coming from an agricultural background face difficulties that others do not face through unexpected incidents on their farms.  There are a lot of financial pressures, and troubles and burdens that they do not wish to share with others, which can often end up with people making that wrong decision that suicide is the only way out.

It is also generally acknowledged that the stigma associated with mental illness remains stronger in rural communities than urban communities.  Between 2005 and 2009, 18 deaths due to suicide or undetermined intent were registered in the Moyle area.  That is a high number of deaths for an area with a population of just 17,000.  That meant that, over that period, Moyle had the highest average annual suicide rate of any local government district in Northern Ireland.

Suicide statistics are derived from the General Register Office death registration system.  Suspected suicides are referred to the coroner and take time to be investigated.  On average, it is up to two years after the suicide has occurred that it is registered.  That means that most of the suicides registered between 2005 and 2009 for the Moyle area occurred between 2003 and 2007.  For most of that period, we did not have a suicide prevention strategy to inform the response to the situation in Moyle.  I have no doubt that that response could have been better.

Fortunately, the situation in Moyle seems to be improving, though one suicide is one too many.  Annual average suicide rates for a more recent period are now available.  The Moyle rate for 2009 to 2011 is now below the Northern Ireland average; it is fourteenth highest in suicide rates by local government district.  I should clarify that that measure is per 100,000 of population and not by Moyle just as a council area, so it is genuinely fourteenth highest.  The welcome reduction in suicide in Moyle appears to be continuing in the current year, but these things are hard to assess.

The Public Health Agency is charged with implementing the Protect Life suicide prevention strategy.  The refreshed strategy, published in June, contains actions aimed specifically at rural dwellers.  They focus on providing access to community based physical and mental health checks, including signposting to advice services on mental health-related issues.  The Public Health Agency has been providing health checks at farmers’ markets and been working with the Agriculture Department to deliver the maximising access in rural areas project, which aims to improve the health and well-being of rural dwellers by increasing access to services, grants and benefits for vulnerable households.

I have frequently said that the approach to suicide prevention must be rooted in partnership working, which Mr McDevitt mentioned, and maximising community involvement.That is exactly the approach that the Public Health Agency has been taking in the wider Northern Trust area, which of course covers the Moyle District Council area.  The agency has established a partnership with community groups and networks to help communities promote mental health and prevent suicide.  It funds a number of suicide prevention posts to support that work.  One post holder works with the North Antrim Community Network to build the capacity of local groups to be involved in suicide prevention and tackling drug and alcohol misuse.  The Public Health Agency has assisted community groups in Moyle to apply successfully for funding from the agency's suicide prevention small grants scheme. 

That approach has recently been independently evaluated.  I launched the evaluation report at an event in Greenmount College in October.  The results were very positive.  The evaluation stressed that the community network approach in the Northern Trust area has brought suicide prevention and mental health awareness into the heart of local communities and to some of the most marginalised people.  It has also enhanced the capacity of communities to deal with the issues.  The partnership approach developed by the Public Health Agency and the community networks in the Northern Trust area is clearly helping to deliver real change and improved outcomes in local communities.  Local communities are best placed to know the issues facing their people and the resources that are available, or that need to be enhanced, to deal with them.  The community network model, with support from specialist suicide prevention officers and access to relevant funding, will continue to be the model for suicide prevention in the Northern Trust area.

We will continue to keep a watchful eye on all of this.  We will continue to work with groups.  There are opportunities to extend the work that we are doing with the volunteer groups, groups that are so keen to ensure that others do not suffer as they have suffered.  To help ensure that that is the case, we are keen to work with those groups to ensure that we harness their skills and desires correctly and that the support that they give can make a real and meaningful difference.  We need to keep driving down suicide rates in Northern Ireland.  Thankfully, a dip was indicated last year, after there having been a constant rise for five or six years.  We really need to work to ensure that that continues to be the case.  I do not know what has happened this year.  We hear reports of suicide and about pockets of suicide, but we will not know for a time whether those represent an actual increase or not.  Nonetheless, we really need to focus on working with those people who are so keen to help us deliver for our communities.

I attended the funeral of a 10-year-old boy today.  Last night, I visited the Spence family.  I know the impact that death has on people.  Sometimes, people can see no other solution for themselves but suicide.  However, the hurt and the harm and the pain for those left behind by that separation from someone whom they loved so much is a very, very cruel thing to deal with, with so many unanswered questions.  We need to do so much to get to those people before they take their own life.  We need to let them know that they are a valued partner in their home and family and a valued member of our community.  We need to let them know that people do care for them and that there are lots of better options out there than suicide.  We need to get that message out very clearly.  I thank all who help to get that message out.

Adjourned at 4.44 pm.