Donal Walsh and Suicide: What’s missing from the debate, and where do we go from here?

Donal Walsh

There has been lots said and written on the subject of the late Donal Walsh over the past 48 hours. Rarely has the passing of a young man evoked so much emotion and passion among the public, but then, Donal was without a doubt an exceptional young man, who displayed remarkable courage, dignity and bravery as he faced his future knowing he was dying from cancer.

On Wednesday night, RTE 1 showed a documentary entitled “Donal Walsh: My Story”, which followed Donal and his family throughout his last few months as he came to terms with the fact that he was dying. Knowing that he had very little time left, Donal, his friends and family spoke eloquently and earnestly about his treatment, his feelings, his aspirations, and his frustration that he would never get to achieve many of his dreams and goals. The public was already familiar with Donal’s story, having witnessed his candid interview with Brendan O’Connor on the Saturday Night Show in May 2013, where he implored teenagers to think twice before they considered suicide.

RTÉ tends to excel in the genre of documentary making, and as a human interest story, this was an exceptional, evocative and heart-breaking piece of film-making. Donal’s courage, and that of his and his family – mother Elma, father Fionnbar and sister Jema –  and his loyal bunch of friends is one of the most inspiring stories of our generation, and a story worth telling. There are lessons to be taken from the way in which Donal faced his illness, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone watching it could fail to be moved.

A central focus of the documentary was Donal’s opinion on teen suicide, as broadcast on the O’Connor interview in May. Statistics had shown a consistent upward trend in recorded suicides in Kerry in previous years, many of those deaths occurring among young people.

“I just didn’t want them to see suicide as a solution to any of life’s problems. It hurts me to see them think about it… to see it among their friends. But it kills me because I’m here fighting for my life for the third time … I’ve no say in anything, and I’m still here waking up every day. And they think that they have a problem, and this might be a solution. That does make me angry, and I’m not going to lie about it. I’ve nothing against people with mental illness. But these people have to realise that there is help.”

His words triggered a nationwide conversation on suicide, and widespread media coverage. Young people claimed that his message had touched them, had changed their outlook, and had resonated in a way that the voices of adults – parents, teachers – had not.

During the documentary, his father, Fionnbar, read from a letter received from a student in Waterford.

“Your story was so powerful and moving. I’m 16 myself, and the thought of going through what you have gone through at the same age is just hard to believe. Many people would have been afraid to say what you’ve said about suicide. It wouldn’t have been politically correct, and all that bullshit. You tell it how it is, and I respect that”.

The words of another student:

“Young people shouldn’t be thinking of dying so soon. They should be just growing up, thinking about what they want to be, what jobs they want to have … that kind of stuff.”

Donal himself said:

“If I’m meant to be a symbol for people to appreciate life more in general, he said, then I’ll be happy to die, if that’s what I’m dying for.”

His father put it in starker terms.

“There is no comeback after death”.

The HSE’s National Office for Suicide Prevention (NOSP) adopted Donal’s message, rolling it out to schools, and embarking on a programme to educate young people on appreciating life before they considered dying by suicide.  It’s a good video. But as a strategy to tackle youth suicide, it is lacking. And it is here that the discussion becomes problematic.

There has been much debate raging online since the documentary was aired on the merit of Donal’s message. There is little doubt that it had resonance. It spoke to young people at their level, it moved people of generations older than himself and it made probably anyone who encountered it stop and think. It potentially saved lives. Was it worth saying? Yes, I think so. The phenomenon of suicide clusters and copycat suicides is well documented, and the theory that some suicides are decisions made, not after months of depression, but on the spur of the moment or as a knee-jerk reaction to a traumatic occurrence cannot be discounted. I can’t quote the prevalence of such happenings, nor am I sure what statistical evidence is there to back it up, given the difficulty of collecting such information on suicide. But I do think there was an audience for and a merit to Donal’s message. I’m not convinced we can argue that there was not.

But there are a number of things that are deeply alarming, both within the documentary, and in the way that Donal’s message has been perpetuated by adults almost as a universal truth. What is not acknowledged  is the fact that that this fails  – and fails utterly – to address the fact the suicidality is just not that simple, and that the factors contributing to any one person’s suicidal intent can differ greatly to the next. Suicidality is also strongly linked with depression. At no point in either the documentary or in the wider campaign has depression been acknowledged as an illness, has its nature been explored, nor has the fact that suicide is very rarely a decision made with a clear and rational mind.

No professionals working in the field of mental health were interviewed during the course of the documentary. No account has been taken, either within or outside of the documentary of the fact that a one-size-fits-all message is not an appropriate way in which to go about formulating a suicide prevention strategy – even a youth suicide prevention strategy.

There have been a number of pieces written in the past 48 hours on depression and suicidality from the point of view from those who have themselves been there , and I urge you to find them, read them, absorb them and think about them. The point has been made that we are now at a stage where people feel supported enough to be able to disclose their experiences, and this alone is evidence of the strides that have been made in this debate.

However, it is absolutely crucial to remember that there are two levels of understanding of suicidality. The understanding of those who have been there, and who have felt that despair, and those who have not. The latter, if they are serious about wanting to help to address this problem, need to take responsibility for learning about the state of mind in which a fellow human being  finds themselves to not want to exist anymore. From my own experience, it is born out of a desperation to escape a hellish existence in one’s own mind, where nothing exists but self-loathing, darkness and a sense of being trapped. When I felt suicidal, and contemplated dying, it wasn’t because I wanted to die. I just wanted to escape. I didn’t want to live like that any more, and the only way in which to achieve that was to stop living. To a healthy mind, that’s almost incomprehensible. There is no rationality involved in that particular state of mind. None. But I urge you, try to contemplate it.

Now picture someone telling you “Sure you’ve loads to be thankful for. There are people dying through no fault of their own and you want to kill yourself.” Consider how, in a mind full of despair, hearing those words would make you feel. Would you feel any better about yourself? Already, you can’t find anything to make you feel grateful for living (as illogical as it may be, but remember, there is no logic left). Now, the implication is that you’re selfish, too. Which, in turn, reinforces every negative thought you’ve already had about yourself, and increases that sense of self-loathing. How is that helpful? How?

Above, we had a student dismissing public discourse on suicide as “politically correct” and “bullshit”. This assertion remained unchallenged within the documentary. Suicidality is so complex. It IS delicate. We are still learning how to talk about it in a responsible way. Treating it with sensitivity is not politically correct bullshit. I have no issue with this young man saying it as he sees it, from the point of view of a teenager who has in all likelihood experienced suicide by peers. But I do have an issue with this viewpoint not being challenged by adults, or those who deemed the documentary an appropriate commentary on suicide. Again – it’s just not that simple.

So why, at no stage, has no-one in the public eye, the media, the health professions,  while this campaign has been running, and documentary been airing, strongly and explicitly acknowledged that this message, while extremely laudable in one sense, is absolutely not applicable to everyone out there who is contemplating suicide? Why has the negative impact that this message may have had on those in a depressed and suicidal frame of mind not been acknowledged?  Why are we consistently fed a strategy of soundbites that may resonate with some, but may alienate others? While NOSP claim that they had the input of a number of professionals in producing the Donal Walsh video on their website to ensure it was appropriate for young people, why did they not acknowledge the complexity of suicidality, the fact that each sufferer is dealing with their own individual struggle? They tell young people about the “value life” message, yet do not acknowledge the difficulties involved in doing so when struggling with a mental illness like depression.  This “scratching the surface”, one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t cut it anymore, and if anyone should be acknowledging that, it is one of the few – if not the only – public bodies currently tasked with suicide prevention.

The issues I raise in this post aren’t with brave, dignified Donal Walsh. They are not with his tremendously courageous and generous family and friends. I hope that is absolutely clear. They have lost a son, a brother, a close friend. They have given magnanimously of their time, their privacy and shared their grief with a nation, in order to spread the message of Donal’s courage and dignity. There is hardly a person watching RTÉ 1 on Wednesday night who didn’t want to put their arms around them and take their grief away, or could fail to be inspired by their appetite to inspire massive societal change, as evidenced in the setting up of Donal Walsh Live Life. Donal’s words – which his family explicitly acknowledge were said in anger, by a dying child who never claimed to be an expert on mental health – inspired a wave of emotion, and injected impetus into a conversation we are only starting to have at a national level. And for that, I am certainly grateful.

But they should not be perpetuated as an all-encompassing strategy, nor do they speak to everyone. It is now the responsibility of public policymakers, mental health bodies and organisations (starting with the Minister for Mental Health), medical professionals and indeed, ourselves as a mature, responsible society to continue that conversation, while striving to educate ourselves and others on the nature of suicidality, mental ill-health and depression in a meaningful way.

Soundbites aren’t enough. Platitudes aren’t enough. We’ve all heard messages at this stage like “talk to someone”, “get help”, “there’s always someone out there willing to listen”. They are just not sufficient anymore. We can’t just dump them out there and expect people in distress to find their own way.

Let’s look at this in real, practical terms.

If you were desperate, in the frame of mind where the only relief you could contemplate was not living any more, where would you turn? Who would you talk to? If you make the (difficult and brave) decision to “talk to someone” and seek help, where would you go first? Would you get the support you needed from your family? Friends?  Would your employer support you if you need to take time off? Would you even feel comfortable telling your employer? Would you receive the best advice on embarking on the path of medical support such as taking anti-depressants?  Would you be able to access the right therapy for you, with a therapist you felt comfortable with? Would your health insurer pay for you to get all the therapy you need? If you don’t have health insurance, how would you go about accessing that therapy? How long would you have to wait to access that therapy? Bear in mind here that you are desperate, and need help quickly. And not just any old help. The right help and treatment for you, as an individual, with individual needs.  If you dial 999 in the middle of the night, or contact an out-of-hours GP service, will you get the help you need?  We need these assurances.

What if someone came to you in desperation, telling you that they couldn’t cope with living any more, and didn’t know where to turn, would YOU know what to do? Would you know where to go to get help? Would you know what to say, what not to say, how to listen?

Make no mistake, this conversation is merely in its infancy. Donal Walsh and his family have played a huge part in building that conversation. This is not a battle for them to fight alone. What is the HSE doing to address the above questions? What is the Minister for Mental Health doing? What are you and I doing, as members of a mature society with a collective responsibility to each other other than repeating platitudes that make us feel better about ourselves? Are we educating ourselves on how to recognise the signs, how to react?

It’s time to stop paying lip service to suicide prevention, and start coming up with real solutions, fast.

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39 thoughts on “Donal Walsh and Suicide: What’s missing from the debate, and where do we go from here?

  1. Really well put, Ann Marie. It’s a tough thing to talk about without wanting to come across as being disrespectful to Donal’s memory or his family, and you’ve done it perfectly.

    It’s such a complex issue and not only is that being ignored by emphasising Donal’s message as a panacea, it’s being ignored by those who rail against anyone daring to speak out against that fact; the belief that seeing faults with the message means you see faults against Donal himself. Nothing I’ve read over the past few days suggests that, yet I’ve seen plenty who still try and read that into it. And I can only imagine it is that fear that largely prevents the mainstream media from covering this issue.

    • Paul, I think you’re right. And I can completely understand their reluctance to challenge the message, given its sensitivity, and particularly when the Kerry coroner has proclaimed that the message has all but stopped suicide in the area. But there is a bigger picture that needs to be addressed, and I believe this can be effectively done without alienating those targeted by Donal’s words.

      But it’s difficult, and it’s risky, and in one sense, I can’t blame them for steering clear – at least for now. I was in touch with Kevin Bakhurst, the MD of RTÉ News and Current Affairs earlier today about this – he has said he feels the issue needs continued, careful, considered discussion and he is sure they will continue to do that. I certainly hope he commits to this.

      Thanks a million for reading.

      • totally agree that sensitivity is key but one must also aknowledge that the Kerry coroner also put the reason for so many suicides in modern Ireland is due to a lack of corporal punishment, a more insensitive and ignorant statement would be hard to imagine, plus for him to assert that Donals message has all but stopped suicide in the area cannot have any basis in fact as he is in no position to know such information

  2. thank you so much for elucidating what I and many others have sloshing around in our heads and hearts, it is only when such honesty sensitivity and clarity is applied to this soul-grinding conundrum will we finally begin to appreciate the true depth of this infinitely complex issue

  3. Excellent piece, really well said. I remember hearing Donal speaking at the time all those months ago and while being heartbroken for his suffering, thinking ‘hang on, suicide isn’t that simple’. So thank you for this.

  4. An excellent post Anne Marie. Very respectful of that brave young man’s battle with cancer and equally understanding of the struggle faced by those who are depressed and/or experiencing suicidal ideation.

  5. Anne Marie – a superbly articulated, sensitive and comprehensive piece of writing.

    These points need public debate – there is far too much lip service paid, sound bites made and far too little action of any substance.

    You will know the resource bank we’ve created at http://www.depressionhurtsireland.com which we view as an umbrella for those with any of the rainbow of MH issues to find shelter under.

    There is support for individuals, families, including emergency contacts (the same also accessible in our FREE APP http://irelandphoto.com/dph/app/ ).

    We specifically support depression, suicidal mindset, bullying and have produced an Educational package (to date offered FREE to main school curriculum organisers and 3 Ministers – Health and Education – without even courtesy of reply). You might from that understand why I so heartily endorse and support your comment of ‘lip service’!.

    There is ‘at work’ support material and much more on the Irish website and it’s mirror site which supports the uk http://www.depressionhurtsuk.com.

    In our 3 years of active advocacy, we’ve worked on a voluntary basis, without budget, yet have managed to create quality (award winning) support materials, provided seasonal support and more. An unpublicised, confidential support via twitter DM has been provided to at any time between 6-12 individuals who are in mental distress or (acute) suicide mind. We have lost no one who’s come to us for help.

    I share this not to promote what we do but to express exasperation that a Government with so much resource seems to achieve so little.

    We are a tiny but respected social enterprise, run by people who give of themselves and are supported by kind volunteers – we’re not special as there are many more organisations also providing the most tremendous support across most areas of Mental illness. It terrifies me to think just how abandoned people might be without these organisations. Progress has been made in discussion of mental health but as you rightly point out, some of the comments made in the documentary and commonly heard, are completely incorrect and really should not be packaged and presented without challenge as they simply add to the stigma around Mental illness.

    We’re determined that the voice of MH will be heard as those unfortunate enough to be on twitter know. Simply until society – i.e – EVERYONE accepts that mental illness can potentially be as terminal as any physical illness, there is work needed to change attitudes.

    I’ve much more to say but will end here – I’m sorry this has been such a long comment!!!, I intended just to say thank you for this blog and very well done for writing it !

  6. Thanks to all of your for your feedback. The piece didn’t say everything I wanted to, but it was a start. There’s been some feedback over on twitter around the availability of services for those in crisis – quite positive too – which is heartening. I appreciate you all reading and I hope it helps to continue the wider conversation.

  7. Excellent commentary on a complex topic. I came across this video while researching a Toastmaster speech:

    It’s heavy going but well-researched.

    Here’s my own attempt at analysis:

    • Thanks Philip – and thanks for your considered input to the conversation elsewhere – it helped me to form my thoughts around this post and is much appreciated.

  8. Thank you so much for such an honest article. My son suffered with depression and we were both extremely upset by recent media coverage. We were struggling to deal with his illness and avenues of help were neither as available or as visible as they should have been. Depression is a disease as malignant and as real as any other which takes young people in their prime and one that is often misunderstood. Sadly my son took his own life recently and I know without a doubt that my beautiful, caring, sensitive son would have greatly appreciated the article you’ve written. I hope people continue to talk about depression, suicide and other issues surrounding mental illness.
    From a devastated, heartbroken Mother.

    • Oh Holly, I am so very sorry for your dreadful loss. I can only imagine how you are feeling, and I hope you are getting the support you need. There is so much talking and work yet to be done to help people understand the nature of this horrific illness, but at least we are finally talking. Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment x

  9. I meant to comment when I read this yesterday, Anne-Marie. It’s a great article and, although you may not have said everything you wanted to, you have shown the complexities that have been lost or ignored in other places.

  10. Very well said Anne-Marie. Personally, I think that the experience of someone like Conor Cusack would be easier to relate to if I was dealing with depression and/or suicidal ideation, and thus would be much more helpful in an overall context. You need to hear that things can get better from someone who has been in the same boat as you and understands the mechanisms of the condition. I feel that a lot of people with good intentions but no real understanding of depression have latched onto Donals story, however to me it doesn’t seem that different to the old reliable of telling someone that ‘X’ was worse off than they were and therefore they should shake themselves out of it. I don’t mean any disrespect to Donals family or his memory as his was a desperately sad story, however I would agree 100% that the issue is being over-simplified.

    • Thanks Chief. I hold firm in my belief that there is a certain cohort within whom Donal’s particular message will resonate. However, the messaging needs to be very, very different for those who are suicidal and suffering with depression and it is the use of Donal’s message as a universal one that is wrong and irresponsible. That’s not Donal’s fault, nor that of his family’s; rather it is the experts in this area that need to start talking to make this distinction, and quickly.

      I strongly agree that the stories of people like Conor Cusack, and also, notably, Alan O’Mara and Seamus O’Donnell are hugely important, because they demonstrate that recovery from and management of depression are both very possible.

  11. I just like to add my gratitude for such a well written and thought provoking article, I tried to express similar myself on my facebook page last night, it was a friend who read it sent me the link to your page Annemarie. I have just read it with my son, who has literately suffered from a severe mental illness for many years and we have both found the recent media and social networking views on the same very simplistic. So again I say thank you and my respects to Holly who commented above and recently lost her son tragically…

  12. Hi Anne-Marie

    Firstly we would like to congratulate you on a superb piece of writing which so sensitively dealt with the complexities relating to suicide and the Donal Walsh story.

    Donal has been portrayed in many mediums where his message was simple, in fact too simple to cover all in this area. His message it seems has been tied to the issue of mental health and depression very strongly when in fact he specifically stated that his message was not aimed there. His message was aimed at the area you so rightly pointed out

    “It potentially saved lives. Was it worth saying? Yes, I think so. The phenomenon of suicide clusters and copycat suicides is well documented, and the theory that some suicides are decisions made, not after months of depression, but on the spur of the moment or as a knee-jerk reaction to a traumatic occurrence cannot be discounted.”

    His message was aimed mainly at his peer age group who were also glorifying the act on social media for the immediate days after seeing the act by one of their community.

    We are fully aware that there is a lot being done but much more work needs to be done on the whole issue of suicidality by the NOSP and the national health authorities.

    What Donal has done was bring into the open a conversation that had been secretive beforehand. This allowed others to contribute to this conversation, including Conor Cusack, in a very meaningful way that was now easier to accept. Donal’s legacy is not that he had the answers or is the answer to this issue. His legacy is that he opened the conversation from a very unique position, knowing that he had no choice in what was happening to him.

    He did not want to die and would go on to wring every last moment out of living which he did. The specific aim of the Donal Walsh #Livelife Foundation is to continue to promote this conversation. To be fair the Irish Independent produced a series of articles on the subject in the same week that the NOSP video was brought out specifically to focus on the various areas of discussion when that video was produced.

    Before finishing we would like to again thank you for your kind dealing with Donal who we will also always treasure in our hearts.

    The Walsh Family

    • Dear Fionnbar, Elma and Jema,
      A sincere thank you for your kind words – I very much appreciate you getting in touch and taking the time to comment, especially at such a difficult time for you all. I am strongly in agreement with you that having this conversation is a positive development – in the past couple of years we have started to move mountains in this regard, and it is so important that we continue to progress. I have no doubt that Donal’s words made a huge impact on many of his peers, and far beyond. Now the challenge is that we begin to speak compassionately to everyone in difficulty and offer them the support they need to seek help without alienating or further stigmatising them – and this is a matter for NOSP and other mental health bodies to tackle as a matter of urgency. True, Donal did not have all the answers, but then, neither do any of us – we are all still learning – so what is crucial now is that we continue this conversation that’s been started. Wishing you all the best in your work with the Donal Walsh #Livelife Foundation, and thank you again most sincerely for getting in touch.
      Anne-Marie

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  14. I am currently working on a radio documentary on suicide and depression among the Irish farming community. I am finding it extremely difficult to get anyone from a farming background to come on record and actually speak about the problem. I think the old saying, the more things change the more they stay the same, very true in this case.

    • Hi Caroline,
      I can’t say I’m surprised – sadly research on which I’ve worked in the past has revealed not only a high incidence of mental health issues among the farming community but a huge reluctance to disclose, even to family/friends. We also found that a significant proportion of famers would delay seeking treatment in case it was discovered. There has been an increased focus on mental health among farming bodies like Macra and the IFA but whether this has had an impact or not, it’s difficult to say. So there’s certainly still a huge problem there.

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  18. I’m so glad to see this argument put forward in a respectful, intelligible and understanding way. I could not find the words for this myself Ann Marie, and I’m so glad you have.
    The massive gap in media coverage of the other side of the coin to Donal’s argument is enraging. I worry what damage this is causing to others who are suffering from depression and are not benefiting from the message of “you’re ungrateful to not appreciate the life you have”. Compounding this difficulty is the fact that Donal was a tragic, dying teenager – and who could argue with his plea’s for life.
    Donal leaves a wonderful legacy behind him for opening the debate on suicide, and for that I applaud him and his family.
    It is our job now to counter his pleas with helpful, practical advice that does not condemn the mentally ill as ungrateful.
    This is such a complex, sensitive and misunderstood issue that to simplify it without due thought and consideration is a real travesty.
    Niamh

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