Why Do Irishmen Take Their Own Lives?

(The Furrow, October 2010, pp. 540-546)


Suicide has been on the increase in Ireland for the last twenty-five years. In 1987, 245 people took their own lives; in 1997, 444; and, in 2007, 460. In 2008, 279 people died on the roads, while 434 took their own lives. The Republic’s suicide rate is 60% above Britain’s.

Between 1970 and 1999, its suicide rate multiplied by six. Every day in the Irish Republic, an estimated sixteen people try to take their lives, and eight a week actually do so. (1)

For every woman who takes her life, more than four men do. There was a four-fold increase in suicide of males aged between 15 and 24 in the period 1979-1998. (2)

High risk categories include farmers, especially bachelors living alone, the unemployed, and the caring professions. In addition, a survey in Northern Ireland of gay men aged between 16 and 25 showed a level of attempted suicide five times that of their straight counterparts. (3) (The US Department of Health and Human Services claims that thirty per cent of all teen suicides are among homosexuals. (4) Suicide among separated fathers is several times the level among fathers living with their spouses. (5) In 2009, it was reported that twenty separated Irishmen had taken their lives because of being deprived access to their children. Among those recently discharged from psychiatric care, the incidence of attempted suicide is about 200 times that of the general population.

Other factors to be considered, either as cause, occasion or catalyst, are: loss of faith or the lack of it in the first instance, with consequent loss of direction, purpose, and meaning; a lack of values to live by, or hopes to live for (suicide rates declined in Northern Ireland during “The Troubles,” and in Britain during World War II); dysfunctional family life; domestic abuse, whether as agent or victim; drug-taking or binge-drinking; being bullied at school or work; difficulty in accepting, or being accepted, as homosexual; pre-marital sex; discovering that one’s partner has aborted your child; being a separated father denied access to children; inability to communicate; seeing suicide as a “deserved” form of punishment for one’s wrongdoing; and a range of other emotional pains to which the person sees no answer.

Most suicides follow a period of depression, often undiagnosed. ‘Psychiatric disorders, usually depression, or an intoxicant problem is present in 90% of people who take their own lives.’ (6) Suicide in Ireland: A Global Perspective and a National Strategy. To say that, of course, only raises the question, ‘Why the depression in the first instance?’ Suicide doesn’t run in families, but depression may, and it can lead to suicide. Alcohol is associated with 20-30% of suicides, rising to 50% of youth suicides. As the national rate of alcohol intake increased, so did the rate of suicide, and vice versa. Alcohol is a depressant. Serotonin, a chemical made in the brain, is closely linked to mood regulation, decision-making and executive reasoning. (7) Alcohol reduces its transportation, and drugs like ecstasy may have a similar role. Professor Patricia Casey has written of ‘the 300-fold increase in teenagers being treated in our psychiatric hospitals for alcohol-related disorders.’ Dr. John F. Connolly of the Irish Association of Suicidology said, ‘Ireland’s rising suicide rates are partly linked to the increase in alcohol abuse, and, in particular, the trend towards binge drinking among young people.’

Why do men kill themselves? Doris Lessing wrote, ‘It has now become socially acceptable to consider men domestically incompetent, useless in the kitchen, hopeless fathers, unreliable breadwinners and generally a dispensable sector of the human race’. And Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy said, ‘Our success-ridden, intolerant and demanding society results in many adolescents feeling stressed out, under severe pressure, and filled with anxiety. A society in which it is the norm to put people down, whether they be men or women, because they are not smart enough, or rich enough, or good-looking enough, or street-wise enough, or cool enough, is a society that does not value people as human beings; and a society that does not value people as human beings should not be surprised if people do not value themselves.’ Or take their lives.

Another factor is that feminism has shifted the boundary markers and moved the ground under men’s feet, leaving some men in uncertainty about male roles, or even what it is to be a man, as distinct from being a father or husband. Poor self-image, a lack of self-esteem among young men, especially in the presence of high-achieving females, seems to help trigger suicide. Men have no heroes left – just money, power, and sex.

A scarcely acknowledged factor in male suicide is the abortion by their partner of the child they fathered. A conference in San Francisco in 2007, under the title Reclaiming Fatherhood: a Multifaceted Examination of Men dealing with Abortion, heard that, ‘While the impact of abortion on men is low on the cultural radar, there is overwhelming research, clinical experience, and anecdotal evidence that a man can be profoundly traumatized by the elective loss of a child, whether he encouraged it, resisted it, or only learned of it after the fact.’ Another speaker, Catherine T. Coyle, author of Men and Abortion: A Path to Healing, spoke of men experiencing depression, grief, guilt, anxiety, powerlessness, anger, emotional turmoil, sexual dysfunction, and other symptoms associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. She said it was common for a man to repress feelings about abortion for years. Immediately following a partner’s abortion, men often feel a sense of relief. She added, ‘It’s like a virus; it goes deep, and eventually delayed symptoms of trauma will often surface despite men’s frequent avoidance and denial.’ She went on to say, ‘Men have no reproductive rights whatsoever, even if they are married to a woman considering an abortion.’ That contributes to many men’s feelings of powerlessness following the abortion of their child. ‘There is zero awareness of a connection between male suicide and abortion. It is not even a category,’ she said. Another speaker, Gregory Hasek, director of a family counselling centre in Oregon, sees a close correlation between clients who suffer from problems related to their own fathers – abuse, neglect, absence – and their own loss of fatherhood resulting from abortion. ‘The loss of a father relationship is huge’, he said. Indeed, the phrase ‘It’s a woman’s right to choose’ leaves the father dispossessed, sidelined, emotionally castrated. To dismiss his fatherhood as irrelevant is to dismiss him as irrelevant.

Speaking of youth suicide, the Dublin County Coroner, Dr. Bartley Sheehan, stated, ‘The most common factor… is the breakdown of the marriage or relationship of the victim’s parents during childhood.’ He spoke of society’s ‘apparent reluctance to recognize the hazards for children of marital breakdown, strife between parents, and an insecure early life experience.’ (8) One result of this may be an inability to communicate.

There is no single cause for suicide. Anyone could potentially become suicidal, and most people probably consider it at some time in their lives.

Surprisingly perhaps, there appears also to be a copycat factor. The Irish journalist Joe Humphreys wrote, ‘The link between suicide and its depiction or coverage in the media and on film is well established. In the US, it has been estimated that one in five suicides are copycat in nature. In Germany, a TV series in which a young male student died by suicide on a railway line was claimed for causing a large increase in suicide by this method over the following seventy days. In a reverse case, newspapers in Vienna agreed in 1998 to stop covering subway suicides as part of voluntary reporting guidelines. The number of suicides on the underground fell.’ (9)

Sexual activity in young people may also contribute. Robert Rector, author of the US National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, wrote, ‘Teenagers who are sexually active are more likely to become dejected, and are at greater risk of suicide than those who are not. A survey of 6,500 US teenagers, aged from 14 to 17, found that [sexually active] teenage girls were three times as likely to feel depressed, and three times more likely to attempt suicide. Boys were twice as likely to feel depressed and nine times more likely to attempt suicide.’ And Dr. Meg Meeker, ‘Teenage sexual activity routinely leads to emotional turmoil and psychological distress.’

A significant side-effect of suicide is intense distress to those left behind. They ask themselves, ‘Why did I not notice?’ ‘Was I too hard or too soft?’ ‘Did I give too much or too little?’ ‘Why did s/he not talk?’ ‘Why did s/he do this to us?’ etc. There are no clear answers. But it is clear that suicide causes terrible suffering in families. It is like a huge slap across the face to them, while leaving them with no right of reply. It may be a punishment on them for a real or perceived slight. It can lead to suicide in other family members. It has been estimated that a minimum of fifty people suffer from guilt, shame, loss and rejection as a result of each suicide. In (rightly) removing the stigma from families who suffered the loss of a member through it, we may also have removed the sense that it is wrong to do it. (10)

A young man, recovering from attempted suicide, said, ‘I kept things to myself. You couldn’t admit that you weren’t feeling well. That was one of the biggest problems. Big boys don’t cry.’ He made the decision to kill himself six weeks before he made the attempt. His immediate reaction to the decision was one of relief, and people commented that he looked well again and was back to his old self. Another young man, who also survived an attempt, said he came from a background where you couldn’t share feelings, or talk about emotions: ‘Friendship is the key to mental health. You feel you are alone while you could be getting a lot of help.’

Why don’t they tell someone? For many people suicide is still a taboo topic; it implies that the person is “not right in the head,” or simply a failure. It takes courage to break through this. How can a person speak the unspeakable? One person who was tempted to suicide, and felt that God was absent, wrote, ‘A great wall reaches up to the sky and blots out the stars.’ When dying of tuberculosis, she asked people to remove a scissors from her bedside table in case she used it to kill herself. That was Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Her namesake, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, also considered suicide when she experienced long-lasting depression. In the Bible (1 Kings 19.1-8), Elijah said, ‘I have had enough. Take my life. I am no better than my ancestors.’ But he went on to become a prophet to God’s people. If saints and great figures of the Bible can talk about it, why hold back?

How can someone know if a person is thinking of suicide? Some possible indicators include: – previous attempts (in over half the cases, there had been a history of self-harm in the previous year); impulsive, high-risk behaviour, such as reckless driving; withdrawal from family and friends; loss of interest in usual activities; sadness, hopelessness and irritability; making negative remarks about themselves; talking or writing about suicide; talking about feeling isolated and lonely; expressing feelings of failure, uselessness, or loss of self-esteem; constantly dwelling on problems to which there seem to be no solutions; a sudden change from extreme depression to appearing calm; putting their affairs in order; giving away personal items. The more of those present, the greater the risk. Eighty per cent of people who took their own lives told someone of their intention to do so in the month preceding.

What can a person do to help someone may be suicidal? Tell them you’re worried about them, and offer support. Ask questions and listen to the answers. Don’t be afraid, for fear of “putting ideas into their head,” to ask them directly if they are considering suicide – bursting the bubble of denial or pretence is cathartic. Be patient. Let them talk. Take them seriously. Call for help or offer to get it – doctor, Samaritans, counselling. If they seem about to do it, contact hospital casualty. The worst thing you can do is do nothing.



Much of the information and statistics in this article have been collated by the author from a variety of sources over the last fifteen years or so. In some matters, statistics drawn from the Central Statistics Office, the National Suicide Research Foundation, the Gardaí, and County Coroner’s reports vary, sometimes substantially.

  1. From Joe Humphreys, The Irish Times, 26 March, 2001, p.13.
  2. Alison Healy, “President highlights tragedy of the increase in youth suicide”, The Irish Times, 1 March 2002, p.7.
  3. From a BBC Radio Ulster programme.
  4. Cited by Dugan McGinley, Acts of Faith, Acts of Love: Gay Catholic Autobiographies as Sacred Texts, Continuum, New York, 2006, p.142.
  5. Paul Anderson, MA Thesis “An Investigation of the Needs of Non-Resident Fathers in County Donegal,” Magee University, Derry City, 2006, and the National Suicide Research Foundation research paper, “Inquested Deaths in Ireland,” p.9.
  6. Suicide in Ireland: A Global Perspective and a National Strategy. See the website www.aware.ie
  7. Dr. Muiris Houston, cited by Joe Humphreys in The Irish Times, 27 March, 2001, p.10.
  8. Cited by Kitty Holland in The Irish Times, 9 August 1999, p.4.
  9. From The Irish Times, 28 March, 2001, p.11.
  10. Helpful literature for the bereaved includes:
    • Biebel, D. B. and Foster, S. L., Finding your Way after the Suicide of Someone you Love, Zondervan, 2005.
    • Guntzelman, Joan, God knows you’re Grieving, Sorin Books, 2001.
    • Wertheimer, Alison, A Special Scar – the Experiences of People bereaved by Suicide, 2nd edn., 2001.

A useful study of this problem was made by the Council on Social Responsibility of the Methodist Church in Ireland: From Despair to Hope: a Christian Perspective on the Tragedy of Suicide, Veritas, Dublin, 2002.

The Five SIGNS of Impending Suicide:

  1. Sleep disturbance
  2. Isolation
  3. Giving away possessions
  4. No interest in life
  5. Speaking of having no future.