River pa­trol aims to pre­vent death by sui­cide in Lim­er­ick.

Lim­er­ick Sui­cide Watch, which pa­trols the river Shan­non, says it has saved 180 lives since 2016

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Nora-Ide McAuliffe:

‘They started call­ing it the ‘me­chan­i­cal ban­shee’. It would have been here on a fairly reg­u­lar ba­sis so peo­ple had as­so­ci­ated the he­li­copter com­ing with peo­ple in the river, and more of­ten than not there was. You’d hear it and go ‘oh no. Not again.’ It’s so loud and comes so low, all of Lim­er­ick can hear it. And it was be­cause of that, all of this started.”

Stand­ing in the base of Lim­er­ick Sui­cide Watch, the group’s chair­per­son Colm O’Byrne is telling me how the vol­un­teer crew started out pa­trolling the city’s river, try­ing to pre­vent death by sui­cide, with just a few peo­ple oper­at­ing out of the back of a car.

Since 2010, Lim­er­ick city has had the high­est rate of sui­cide in the coun­try. The most re­cent fig­ures from the Na­tional Of­fice of Sui­cide Pre­ven­tion shows the city’s rate was more than dou­ble the na­tional av­er­age at 21.8 deaths per 100,000 pop­u­la­tion for 2013-2015. For Dublin, the fig­ure is 7.3. The na­tional av­er­age for the same pe­riod is 10.1.

The bridges along Lim­er­ick’s river Shan­non are mon­i­tored ev­ery night of the week, with Lim­er­ick Sui­cide Watch and an­other vol­un­tary group, Cor­bett Sui­cide Pre­ven­tion Lim­er­ick, each cov­er­ing dif­fer­ent days.

Since it started in 2016, Lim­er­ick Sui­cide Watch says it has saved 180 lives.

‘Se­ri­ous in­ter­ven­tions’

“They would be se­ri­ous in­ter­ven­tions. That’d be phys­i­cally tak­ing peo­ple down off bridges and walls, or where you talk to some­body who is sit­ting on a bench but who in­tends on go­ing into the river,” says O’Byrne. Some­times, peo­ple have jumped while a vol­un­teer was talk­ing with them.

Valen­tia Coast Guard (R116), which at­tends to emer­gen­cies on the river Shan­non, says the num­ber of calls it has taken since the group started “is def­i­nitely down”.

While, in many cases, Lim­er­ick Sui­cide Watch is able to calm the per­son, call a friend or fam­ily mem­ber to come take them home, and, hope­fully, get the help they need, other sit­u­a­tions are even more chal­leng­ing. “You meet oth­ers who know a lot about sui­cide in­ter­ven­tion, they know all the tech­niques of Asist [Ap­plied Sui­cide In­ter­ven­tion Skills Train­ing] that we use and so when we are try­ing to give them all the rea­sons they shouldn’t take their own lives, things like their friends and fam­ily, they have a counter ar­gu­ment for each,” says Joan Forde. “It’s hap­pened to me twice, with two dif­fer­ent peo­ple. In those cases we had to call the po­lice.”

Shad­ow­ing the group on a cold but dry Monday evening, we set off at 8pm on a four-hour stint around the city’s river, where we will cover about 10km on foot, pa­trolling the area from Shan­non Bridge to Thomond Bridge and back again.

While there’s usu­ally a team of eight, there are two ex­tra peo­ple tonight. Louise Reilly and Kate Flynn are com­plet­ing their three-month pro­ba­tion and so will just ob­serve how the vol­un­teers deal with sit­u­a­tions.

Once their pro­ba­tion is com­plete, they will, like the group’s other 60 vol­un­teers who come from all walks of life, re­ceive train­ing in sui­cide in­ter­ven­tion, first aid, de­fib­ril­la­tors, res­cue throw-bags, walkie-talkie com­mu­ni­ca­tion and river train­ing.

As we head off, we split into two teams of four, each tak­ing one side of the river, with two other peo­ple on bikes cov­er­ing ex­tra ground up along the city’s canal. O’Byrne de­scribes their work as “bor­der­line ha­rass­ment” while Kaoife McEl­lig­ott says “you have to be nosy” and trust your gut.

“You salute ev­ery­one. If you get no re­sponse and you feel there is some­thing ques­tion­able, you might turn around and fol­low them back down or salute them again and see if they want to talk,” McEl­lig­ott says. “You’ll think, ‘some­thing’s not right there’. Even if some­one is hav­ing a lazy day you’d still prob­a­bly raise your head and nod and ac­knowl­edge, but if some­one doesn’t do that, there’s some­thing wrong. They could just be hav­ing a bad day and need to talk about it, be­cause that one bad day could turn into five bad days and that could turn into drink­ing for a week, you don’t know.”

Each of the vol­un­teers has the in­ter­ven­tion they re­mem­ber most.

For Lucy O’Hara, it was the man she met down by the river who hadn’t com­mu­ni­cated with anybody in six weeks. “We were the first to talk to him and ask him was he okay, no­body had spo­ken to him. He had been up­set and he just broke down.”

Teenage girl For O’Byrne it was the teenage girl, who was the same age as his own daugh­ter. “She was very up­set. We spent an hour with her, we didn’t laugh, we lis­tened. Her mam and dad came down. They were very good to her. They had no idea what was hap­pen­ing, no one knew the stress she was in. I’m sure she got the help she needed. Though we rarely get feed­back.”

Although their main aim is sui­cide pre­ven­tion, some­times the team is tasked with med­i­cal in­ter­ven­tions too. At one point, the group helps a woman who has col­lapsed and is com­plain­ing of chest pains.

The next few hours are what Lim­er­ick Sui­cide Watch calls “a quiet night” and there are no more in­ter­ven­tions.

While there’s plenty of ban­ter and craic among the group through­out the evening, eyes are kept peeled at all times on the river and its sur­round­ings, un­til they head back to base shortly af­ter mid­night, tired, but still in good spir­its.

“What we do is im­por­tant, un­for­tu­nately, and we are needed,” says Ni­amh Doyle. “It’s what hap­pens to the peo­ple af­ter we bring them away from the river, that’s where they are be­ing let down.

“They are be­ing brought to hos­pi­tal and be­ing dis­charged the same day. You could meet the same per­son three days in a row. Ev­ery­body joined this group for rea­sons spe­cific to them­selves. And be­ing hon­est, I’d say we get a lot more out of it than we give. Us be­ing out here, it’s like first aid. We are keep­ing them safe right now. We’ll keep do­ing this. We don’t mind.

“There’s a huge sat­is­fac­tion know­ing you are send­ing some­one home to their fam­ily, know­ing that a dev­as­tat­ing loss hasn’t hap­pened.”

What we do is im­por­tant, un­for­tu­nately, and we are needed. It’s what hap­pens to the peo­ple af­ter we bring them away from the river, that’s where they are be­ing let down

PHO­TO­GRAPH: LIAM BURKE/PRESS 22

Lim­er­ick Sui­cide Watch vol­un­teers Michele Hill and Christy Keyes on pa­trol on the river Shan­non (top) and (above) Kaoife McEl­lig­ott, Tom Shea­han, Kate Flynn and Joan Forde.

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