Monday, 17 December 2012

Enrol in an ASIST course and save a life!

When the news broke about the tragic death of the nurse involved in the Royal Radio Phone Hoax, I found myself annoyed about how the tragedy was reported.

“She was found dead.” said the BBC News, but everyone knew what had happened. This poor woman had killed herself and the euphemistic way this glaring yet dark truth was presented bugged the hell out of me.

Doubtless the Beeb wanted to respect the bereaved family by awaiting confirmation from a post-mortem, but I wondered if in England there still lurks a trace of the suicide taboo that thrives in Ireland.

 ‘Tis the season to be jolly, yet here I am going on about suicide. I’m not going to apologise for my failure to be all bouncy and festive this week, because if I ignored this issue I’d be behaving the same as so many Irish people.

When I first found out many years ago that suicide is far and away the biggest killer of young men in this country, I lifted my eyebrows and exclaimed “Durrr!”  The reason for this terrible and unnecessary loss of life was immediately clear to me, but still now I feel the frustration I felt then, that nobody else sees the same glaring truth.

Having had countless homes in three continents, I’ve never lived anywhere with so few openly gay men as Ireland. Yes, this country has made progress in its attitude towards homosexuality in the last 20 years, but you’re a heck of a long way from getting there.

It was just the same when a few black faces appeared on the streets of Galway. Everyone suddenly decided that they now lived in a multi-ethnic society, while I tried to point out that while you were still ‘spotting them’ you had a million miles to go before you became relaxedly accepting.

Most Irish people think that this country is pretty tolerant towards the LGBT community. All of them would be wrong. But what about that gay presidential candidate and that gay hurler? Pure tokenism at work, if anything highlighting the way gay Irish men are treated as exceptions, rather than as part of the norm.

‘Tolerance’ is a long and unhealthy way from ‘acceptance’. There are right now several men in Connacht who have privately and nervously come out to me, on the strict understanding that I will never reveal their identities.

Hearing their painful tales of loneliness and utter isolation, I wondered again why nobody makes the obvious link between young male Irish suicides and the challenge of coming out in Ireland.

A few years ago I sat on a local committee for Suicide Prevention. There had been a rash of young male suicides in the area, and I listened patiently while the other committee members talked at length about alcohol, drugs, unemployment and poverty, all vital contributory factors in the field of mental health. I was holding my breath, as ever aware that my London accent might sound intrusive and abrasive around this table of well-meaning locals, but eventually I had to speak out. I asked how many gay men they each knew.

There was a sudden torrent of tutting and a few “Well now I don’t see what that has to do with anything” type of remarks. When I pushed them further, a few of them said they knew a couple of lads who might be gay, but, well, really, isn’t that normal?

I explained that no, it wasn’t normal to meet so few gay men in the course of an average day. Looking around I counted 23 people, and announced that in this room there were 2 gay men, 2 lesbians and at least 4 bisexuals. Everyone laughed and looked at me as if I were a pure trouble maker, but I wasn’t for budging.

We weren’t there to feel do-goody. We were trying to save lives.

So I asked if they could think of anything more terrible than living in a small rural Irish community, where every day of your short young teenage and adult life you have to pretend to be somebody else?

Wouldn't that possibly make you suicidal?

They eventually accepted that I might have a point, but I knew I was wasting my time. Within the context of Irish society, these were enlightened intellectual liberals, yet still they resisted what I see every day to be true.

Admittedly, by moving from Northern California to the West of Ireland I’ve gone from one extreme to another. In my job at the University of San Francisco I was the only straight male under the age of 50 in the entire division. Here, I count not one single openly gay man as a friend. As I said before, far too many as secrets.

So I was absolutely delighted to read in The Sentinel last week that funding has been found for an ASIST course to be run at NUIG next February. I’ve done a whole lot of training courses over the years, but none has affected me so profound, positively and practically as the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST)  course.

Over 2 days we were taught how to identify potential suicides, spot requests for help that come in many disguises, as well as how to actually intervene both before or during an attempted suicide.

It was a fantastic experience, which replaced the frustration I was feeling with realistic and powerful new skills. Indeed, a colleague who attended the course with me had the opportunity to use his new skills a few days later.

He saved a life.

Now that’s something to celebrate, isn’t it? So if you want me to get festive this Christmas, find out how to get on ASIST course yourself, and help release those who live in emotional and behavioural prisons, for no other reason than the prejudice of others.

To enrol in an ASIST course, call National Office for Suicide Prevention on 01-6352139 or E-mail:

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