Every year on September 10th people across the world mark World Suicide Prevention Day. This year people from across Derry took part in an initiative to highlight mental health, wellbeing and suicide prevention.
This initiative, the 'empty chair' was to use visual art signifying the loss of a friend or loved one as a focal point to attract people's attention. The origin of the empty chair is that people often have a favourite chair at home where they usually sit. When we lose a loved one, a poignant reminder of the loss is their empty chair. The empty chair in the Guildhall Square and in different areas of the city were significant for a number of reasons; they are in memory of those who have lost their lives to suicide, they are to remind those who have lost friends and loved ones to suicide that they are in our thoughts and to raise awareness of mental health and wellbeing.
A key element of this initiative was to encourage discussion about mental health and suicide prevention. Last Saturday morning staff from Niamh (the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health), from Time 2 Choose Mindcrafts and community activists such as myself placed 'empty chairs' at locations around the city. These empty chairs were painted white and had laminates attached to them giving information on the project and links to online mental health & wellbeing resources.
|Some of the team for WSPD16|
At 12 noon we unveiled a large ‘empty chair’ in the Guildhall Square in Derry. And for the next few hours we distributed thousands of leaflets and information on mental health and wellbeing to people throughout the city centre. We also provided the opportunity for people to leave their own personal message on the chair.
The event was an unqualified success and was welcomed by people who had lost loved ones and friends to suicide. One woman who had lost her grandson had heard about the event on the radio the day before and wanted to find out what it was about. This woman told one of the people giving out the information that she was delighted to see something taking place, she felt it was cathartic to be able to talk about suicide, that people shy away from the conversation, and that having lost someone to have someone listen to her story made the difference.
Some of the conversations taking place, and the messages left on the 'empty chair' would've broken your heart, I can't find any other way to describe them. One of the most important conversations that actually took place that day was the conversation between one of the people involved in handing out information and a man in crisis near the river. Thankfully this man was brought to safety away from the rivers edge.
The positivity that stemmed from this event cannot be underestimated. In the week that past since I have heard from quite a few people who saw the chairs and want to get involved next year.
In this blog I have touched on many of the social and economic factors that can impact on mental health & wellbeing and I have also acknowledged the amazing work of organisations such as Foyle Search & Rescue. I would also urge people to take time to read a publication authored by Iris Elliot of the Mental Health Foundation on Poverty & Mental Health. As a city rife with poverty and the effects of poverty this is essential reading. This document should be emailed to each politician along with the recently published Joseph Rowntree Foundation strategy to end poverty.
Mental health and wellbeing is not something that should be or needs to be left solely in the hands of organisations or groups, it also goes beyond initiatives such as ours and into the hands of every person. Mental health & wellbeing begins with each of us, from looking after our own wellbeing to supporting others to look after theirs. That support could be simply listening to someone, it could be directing someone to an organisation such as the Samaritans (who are currently looking for volunteers).
Figures published by the International Association for Suicide Prevention each year, show over 800,000 people die from suicide; this roughly corresponds to one death every 40 seconds.
In the north of Ireland in 2014 there were 268 lives lost to suicide and although this was a welcome reduction on the previous figure published by the Office of National Statistics more work needs to be done.
It is estimated that during 2012 for each adult who died of suicide there were over 20 others who made suicide attempts. We want people who are despairing and thinking about suicide to know that there is help available. Stigma can be a barrier to people seeking help, but it is essential that people seek help. Speaking to a friend, family member or your GP can help people begin their recovery journey enabling them to realise their full potential.
It is important for people to know that support is available and that we need to encourage people to talk about mental health to break down the stigma surrounding it. When people think about mental health they often shy away from the subject. We need to start having a conversation about mental health & wellbeing and it can start with three simple words.
How are you?