“We’ll never fully understand why Fintan decided life in his 30s wasn’t worth living”
I had thought a lot about my brother in the run-up to his birthday this year. Fintan was supposed to have turned 50 on January 12, but he died by suicide 19 years ago, aged 31.
Over the past two decades I’ve created a “Fintan” memory box that I flick through sporadically. Inside are lots of photos, poems he wrote, letters he wrote me, silly birthday cards, and his driver’s license, which he secured just weeks before he died. The card “Congratulations on passing the driving test” that I bought him is also included. It remains empty inside.
As a large family of 12 siblings, birthdays, especially milestones, are always well marked. Since Fintan’s sudden death in 2003, we’ve continued to celebrate his life posthumously. It was always important for us to share that his life matters. For me, the reminder box helps with milestone events. It comforts me to delve into the content and fondly remember my brother.
However, there is one item in the box that always arouses negative raw emotions; the notes my father wrote after the traumatic death of his youngest son.
I can only assume that he was trying to release some of his pain by putting his thoughts on paper
The turmoil we all experienced at the time is still palpable in these records. Handwritten in a barely decipherable scribble, the notes evoke images of a broken parent writing furiously in the stream of consciousness.
I can only assume that he was trying to release some of his pain by putting his thoughts on paper. The anguished words on the page are always emotionally difficult to read: “Doctor defensive… what did Fintan say to the psychologist that justifies them seeking an emergency contact number?” …this fact is very glaring…needs an answer. ”
My father continues to write: “Medication changed. Why? How long did he take this drug before anything changed? … we were told to get on with our lives.” The last entry in my father’s notes asks a pointed question: “Is the system flawed?”
The relationship between my father and Fintan had not been easy. Fintan was sensitive, creative and gentle. A stark contrast to my traditional, stoic father who “just keeps going”. Despite their challenges, like all of us, my father was no doubt proud that Fintan had remained a recovering alcoholic well into his 20s.
We’ll never quite understand why Fintan finally decided life in his 30s wasn’t worth living. That’s one of the worst things about suicide, the unanswered questions. As a family, we had some insight into Fintan’s mental health struggles, but we had hoped he would never choose this permanent, devastating path to end his pain.
“Time is a healer” is a phrase often circulated when we lose a loved one. Unfortunately, I’m all too familiar with the term, having lost my father to cancer in 2011 and my mother to vascular dementia eleven months later.
In 2018 my oldest brother TJ also passed away unexpectedly. I am not sharing these facts to be melodramatic, just to emphasize that I am familiar with grief and all of its harrowing stages.
I loved my parents and was devastated when they died. They were both 81 years old and had lived long, fulfilling lives, and while I was sad that they were gone, I accepted their deaths as the natural order of things in the circle of life.
Fintan’s death was different. I was 26. I’m 45 now and to this day his death is one of the most traumatic events of my life.
The suicide grief club is one that no one wants to be a part of, but hundreds of families like ours reluctantly join each year. Fintan and too many others after him are part of amazing statistics in Ireland.
Since taking his own life in 2003, my brother is one of 8,787 people to have died by suicide in Ireland up to 2021. (There are likely other deaths that have not been reported as suicide).
I estimated the 2021 stat at 365 based on an average over the past two years. Unfortunately, as the true impact of the pandemic on our nation’s mental health is not yet fully known, this statistic is likely to be higher in 2021, 2022 and beyond unless there is a more strategic, post-pandemic-specific approach to addressing the mental health Health in Ireland adequately funded and broad based.
A total of 1.149 billion euros were made available for mental health in the 2022 budget. This is a significant but well-justified increase from previous years, which includes investment in areas such as crisis response teams, two new Child and Adolescent Mental Health (CAMHS) telehubs. and improved capacity of community mental health teams.
All of these services are vital as suicide continues to be a productive factor in the number of deaths in Ireland each year, particularly among young men. The CSO reports that in 2003, the year Fintan died, men made up 76 percent of suicide deaths. In 2020 it was 76 percent again.
Since 2003, I have volunteered with many others on positive mental health initiatives supported by the Southeast Branch of the National Office for Suicide Prevention.
In addition, as part of my work at the regional youth radio station Beat 102-103, we commissioned research last year to determine the effects of the pandemic on the mental health of young people to date. The results were bleak with little hope.
Last July, my colleague and I presented these findings to the Oireachtas Joint Subcommittee on Adolescent Mental Health. Through all of these interactions with various stakeholders working in the mental health field, I have seen many good people doing great work.
Before the pandemic, suicide rates had fallen. However, as we try to navigate these extraordinarily challenging times together, the way out seems far darker and more unclear to far too many people.
When someone I know is struggling with their mental health, I encourage them to seek professional help that they need. Help that I know I can’t afford enough. Having the confidence to achieve safely is so important, but just as important is a society that is also confident.
When a vulnerable person takes the bold leap to save their life, we all need to be sure they are getting the help they need from Ireland’s mental health services.
– Gabrielle Cummins is CEO of regional youth radio station Beat 102-103 and a positive mental health advocate.
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