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Char­lotte Gunne on the rise in teenage sui­cide and how we can all help those who of­fer sup­port



Oh my god, I want to rope my­self,” she says. My heart stops and my mouth goes dry. She doesn’t mean it, it’s a throw­away re­mark, a fu­ri­ous re­ac­tion to a sit­u­a­tion that dis­pleases her, not meant to shock, yet the panic cour­ses through me. She ap­pears un­aware of how much I worry as she tosses this phrase around with in­dif­fer­ence. She doesn’t mean it, but she over­dosed once be­fore, so the paralysing fear re­mains. Sui­cide at­tempts among our teens has be­come so­cially ac­cepted within their peer group. It has be­come so com­mon­place that they have be­come some­what de­sen­si­tised to the act. But while mak­ing this cry for help, how many of our teens suc­ceed with­out ever mean­ing to?

I had al­ways con­sid­ered her fear­less, born with wings even. She was the child who dan­gled from the tallest branch of the tree to res­cue a stranded cat or in­deed snag the big­gest ap­ple. She was con­stantly singing, and our fam­ily sound­track was her lilt­ing voice bel­low­ing out songs from what­ever Disney movie she was obsessed with at the time. Her daily out­fit was more of­ten than not a blend of mis­matched fancy dress items, and her hair al­ways needed to be brushed, but she had bet­ter things to do. There was al­ways flow­ers to be picked or a bird to be res­cued. She was the star of the show, the girl who never stopped talk­ing.

She was 16 when it hap­pened. Her fa­ther had left when she was nine and she hadn’t seen him since. It had deeply af­fected her, but I thought she was cop­ing. Yes, there were good days and bad days, but we were a close knit fam­ily and this was a bolt from the blue. She didn’t ap­pear un­happy, just a tetchy teen who would, I as­sumed, grow out of her mood swings. She was per­fectly nor­mal. There were plenty of friends she spent time with, and of course there was al­ways some drama amongst them. Ar­gu­ments and bitch­i­ness were com­mon­place, but it ap­peared to me to be busi­ness as usual in the life of a 16-year-old. We al­ways talked about things and so I as­sumed I would know if some­thing was amiss. I was wrong.

On the day ev­ery­thing changed, I was wan­der­ing aim­lessly around the su­per­mar­ket, de­cid­ing what to pick up for din­ner, when I hap­pened to glance at my phone. There were seven missed calls from her and nu­mer­ous fran­tic text mes­sages beg­ging for help. My mind was rac­ing as I di­alled her num­ber, my hands shak­ing fu­ri­ously. Had she been at­tacked? Was some­one hurt­ing her? It seemed to take for­ever for the call

to con­nect. When she fi­nally an­swered, I found it hard to com­pre­hend her words through the tears and the hys­te­ria, but even­tu­ally I un­der­stood the sit­u­a­tion. My beau­ti­ful, fear­less daugh­ter had tried to take her own life. She had trawled our home look­ing for tablets and taken ev­ery­thing she could find, then rang me in a blind panic when the re­al­ity of what she had done set in. I will be for­ever thank­ful for that. I was 20 min­utes away from home, and the hardest thing I have ever done was hang up on her in or­der to ring an am­bu­lance. The emer­gency ser­vices ad­vised me that an am­bu­lance would ar­rive as soon as pos­si­ble and in­structed me to call her back and keep her on the phone while I drove home. It was the long­est drive of my life. Even re­call­ing that drive to­day brings me to tears, re­mem­ber­ing the feel­ing of ut­ter help­less­ness and de­spair that I wasn’t there to mind her. Her fear was pal­pa­ble and as her mother, I should have been there to make ev­ery­thing bet­ter.

Her hos­pi­tal stay was brief, and luck­ily she re­cov­ered with­out last­ing phys­i­cal dam­age, which is of­ten not the case. The only tablets we had in the house were mild painkiller­s and al­lergy med­i­ca­tion, but even an over­dose of parac­eta­mol can cause long-term dam­age to the liver, or even death in some cir­cum­stances. The ex­pe­ri­ence left us both reel­ing, and talk­ing about it with her left me with more ques­tions than an­swers. She didn’t know why she had done it. She was just one in an in­creas­ing num­ber of chil­dren and teens think­ing about sui­cide. Not long after­wards, I heard of two other lo­cal boys who had done the same thing. One sur­vived, one was not so lucky. I have no way of know­ing how that fam­ily sur­vived, or even if they did man­age to pull through. I con­sider us to be among the lucky ones – I still have my daugh­ter. It begs the ques­tion, what is go­ing on with our teens? The fa­mous quote “sui­cide is a per­ma­nent so­lu­tion for a tem­po­rary prob­lem” comes to mind, but as is well known, teens don’t con­sider the long-term, only the here and now. They are, by their na­ture, re­ac­tionary, and this com­bined with the drama of the teenage years is a very dan­ger­ous cock­tail. In the past five years, there has been a 163 per cent in­crease in teens pre­sent­ing to Pi­eta House (pieta­house.ie) due to sui­cide at­tempts or self­harm, and Ire­land has the high­est rate of death by sui­cide among teenage girls in Europe and the sec­ond high­est among teenage boys. We all know that the brain of a teenager is not fully formed and does not have the cog­ni­tive de­vel­op­ment of an adult, but that has al­ways been the case, so what has changed?

Ac­cord­ing to Mar­guerite Kiely, direc­tor with Athena Train­ing (athena. train­ing), a Dublin-based or­gan­i­sa­tion that de­liv­ers be­spoke men­tal health and well­be­ing work­shops through­out the coun­try, so­cial me­dia has a lot to an­swer for. The pop­u­lar

This month, as hun­dreds of thou­sands get set to take part in Dark­ness Into Light, CHAR­LOTTE GUNNE, the mother of

a teenager who tried to take her own life, looks at the rise in teenage sui­cide and talks with some of the peo­ple work­ing

tire­lessly to sup­port and pro­tect so­ci­ety’s most vul­ner­a­ble.

“In the past five years, there’s been a 163 per cent in­crease in teens pre­sent­ing to Pi­eta House due to sui­cide at­tempts

or self-harm.”

Net­flix TV show 13 Rea­sons Why caused some out­rage when it was re­leased, with men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als slam­ming it for pro­mot­ing sui­cide ideation among its tar­get au­di­ence – teenagers. Add to that the fact that videos show­ing how to tie an ef­fec­tive noose can eas­ily be found on­line, and that lap­top in your teenager’s bed­room be­comes a very scary vor­tex in­deed. Ac­cord­ing to Mar­guerite, who served as clin­i­cal direc­tor with Pi­eta House for 13 years, teens con­sider sui­cide ei­ther a fear or a friend. “Teens of­ten con­sider sui­cide a friend, in the con­text that if any­thing else goes wrong in their lives, sui­cide will be there for them, no mat­ter what. They don’t have the cog­ni­tive abil­ity to re­alise that they may not be com­ing back. Some­times, a teen can make nu­mer­ous at­tempts, be­com­ing com­fort­able with the act and feel se­cure in the be­lief that they know how far to go with­out ac­tu­ally suc­ceed­ing.” But mis­takes hap­pen, and chil­dren die. Sui­cide ideation is a disease, and like any disease it can spread with sur­pris­ing ease if peo­ple are not prop­erly pro­tected, and teenagers are the most vul­ner­a­ble in our so­ci­ety. When a child suc­ceeds in tak­ing their own life, the sur­round­ing com­mu­nity is dev­as­tated, but to some teenagers watch­ing from the side­lines, tun­nel vi­sion en­sues and all they ab­sorb is the drama and glo­ri­fi­ca­tion such a tragedy in­spires, es­pe­cially at fu­ner­als. We all know that teenagers thrive on drama, and the death of a child is drama at its most dra­matic.

How­ever, as fright­en­ing as it might be, there is light at the end of the tun­nel. Never be­fore has there been more help and sup­port for those af­fected by this is­sue. Mar­guerite and her col­leagues, Cindy O’Connor and Noleen Devlin, set up Athena Train­ing in Jan­uary this year to aid men­tal health well­be­ing and work on the preven­tion of sui­cide while also sup­port­ing those in need dur­ing the af­ter­math. Pi­eta House has also in­tro­duced a School Re­silience Academy, a six-week school-based pro­gramme that builds skills in re­silience at sec­ondary schools through­out the coun­try. Through this pro­gramme, teenagers are equipped with the knowl­edge, skills and tools they will need to cope with life chal­lenges in a healthy and con­struc­tive man­ner. We know the teenage years can be a dif­fi­cult time, but teach­ing our chil­dren the skills to cope in the face of ad­ver­sity is the key to keep­ing our chil­dren safe. Univer­si­ties too are very sup­port­ive of stu­dent men­tal health is­sues, as start­ing uni­ver­sity can be a dif­fi­cult and some­what lonely time for many young adults. Ac­cord­ing to the Union of Stu­dents in Ire­land (USI), ap­prox­i­mately eight per cent of stu­dents at­tend­ing uni­ver­sity in Ire­land are avail­ing of coun­selling in some form or an­other.

Turn­ing 18 may be a mile­stone birth­day, but al­though it might mark the of­fi­cial be­gin­ning of adult­hood, we all know that for some, adult ma­tu­rity is still a long way off. They still need all the help and sup­port they can get. An­other in­valu­able re­source is Soar (soar.ie), a col­lec­tive move­ment that cel­e­brates the great­ness to be found within all young peo­ple. Soar aims to pro­vide early in­ter­ven­tion and preven­ta­tive well­ness work­shops for young peo­ple aged 12 to 18 years. It runs weekly work­shops and has so far helped more than 27,000 teens since 2012. The stigma at­tached to men­tal health is a war be­ing waged with some suc­cess, but the most vul­ner­a­ble in our so­ci­ety need the un­der­stand­ing and sup­port that recog­nises they can­not, and should not, cope with these feel­ings alone. As par­ents, our role is to pro­tect our chil­dren, but some­times do­ing that means ad­mit­ting that we are not equipped to deal with ev­ery­thing they are en­dur­ing. Pro­fes­sional help and sup­port is no longer a lux­ury. If we are to pro­tect our chil­dren and en­sure their well­be­ing, it is a ne­ces­sity. As I say, I’m one of the lucky ones. I wish I could say that for the other fam­i­lies within our com­mu­nity who have lost a child to sui­cide, but sadly that’s not the case. I don’t know how they feel… I hope I never do.

“Teens of­ten con­sider sui­cide a friend, that if any­thing else goes

wrong, it will be there for them. They

don’t re­alise they may not come back.”

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