Ryan Report, March 2009

Deputy Dan Neville

I want to deal with a very sensitive subject relating to child sexual abuse, the issue of suicide and the higher levels of suicide among those who survive institutional sexual abuse. Studies examining the relationship between childhood trauma and adult suicidal behaviour have reported evidence that the two are frequently linked. A total of 12 out of the 100 young people who were abused in children’s homes in Clwyd, north Wales, have since taken their own lives. The average figure is 12 per 100,000.

My contribution is based on consultation meetings with people who experienced child sexual abuse in industrial schools. The research, which was carried out by the National Suicide Research Foundation in Tralee, Limerick, Waterford, Enniscorthy, Galway and Cork, involved 90 survivors of institutional child sexual abuse. Some of the survivors had numerous insights themselves with regard to risk and protective factors for suicidal behaviour among people experiencing institutional abuse. Many refer to alcohol abuse, depression, lack of education, difficulty obtaining employment and social isolation as being risk factors. A frequently reoccurring theme was the belief instilled in them by those in charge of the institutions that nobody else wanted them and that they would never be successful in life. Much of the abuse took place at night in the institutions and thus many survivors find it very difficult to sleep even now. Protective factors against suicide mentioned by survivors included relationships, children, contact with survivor groups and being able to secure steady employment and obtain an education after they had left the institution. Survivors who had attempted to take their own lives or who had considered doing so spoke about their situation around this time. The emerging themes included not having support of their partner, feeling depressed or experiencing a sense of hopelessness, being under the influence of alcohol or the commencement of counselling and the opening up of the past. The feeling there is no one to talk to who would understand is also frequently mentioned as an issue around the time of suicidal ideation. Those who did not go ahead with their plans to take their own lives frequently refer to their children as being a protective factor. A large number of survivors who participated in consultation meetings had experienced the death of either a friend or a family member through suicide.

The situation around the time of considering taking their own life sometimes reflected a detachment from the world where a depressed individual seemed happier in the weeks running up to their suicide than they had been for some time. Redress was a particularly traumatic time for survivors who had not yet attended counselling. The experience of telling one’s story for the first time to a panel of strangers with whom one had built up no rapport and who were only interested in the facts of your case was a terrible ordeal.

Many survivors have experienced mental and physical health difficulties in adult life. Depression, bipolar disorder and post traumatic stress disorder were evident. Psychosomatic effects such as migraine and diarrhoea were mentioned by some of the survivors. Survivors are concerned about the apparent overuse of medication as a treatment, particularly by general practitioners, GPs. Many feel that the professionals do not understand their unique situation as survivors of institutional abuse and that greater awareness is necessary.

Transgenerational mental health issues also needed to be addressed. There have been some examples among survivors who are anxious for their adult children who are perhaps struggling with addictions or appear to be depressed or suicidal. With no parenting models themselves, survivors are often unsure about how to deal with these issues or even what services are available for their children and how to access them.

A recurring theme at the consultation meetings was that, previously, survivors did not speak about the abuse they suffered because of fear that they would not be believed. In fact, despite the extensive media coverage in recent years of cases of abuse in institutions, some survivors have still not told their partners what they experienced in childhood. Reasons for not wishing to explain this part of their lives include not wanting to upset their partners with full disclosure of abuse or being afraid that their partners would be unable to deal with the knowledge and, thus, their relationships may suffer.

Much of the abuse occurred in the institutions and, thus, many survivors find it difficult to sleep even now. Often, it is at night when they need someone to talk to and the lack of a 24-hour helpline apart from the Samaritans was mentioned by a number of survivors. Upon leaving institutions at the age of 16 years, survivors took various pathways in adult life. Many found the outside world too difficult to cope with, especially when they were used to large, self-contained institutions with big dormitories, strict routines and hundreds of other people around. Consequently, a recurring theme was a return to institutional life, such as joining the Army.

Survivors recalled the difficulty of adjusting to life outside while trying to avoid drawing attention to themselves. Many went to England, where one could ask for advice about simple things, such as taking a bus, and excuse one’s lack of knowledge by saying that one was in an unfamiliar country. Others spoke of trying to understand that they had to pay for food in supermarkets or learn to go to bed at night in a room on their own with no noise or people around them. Trying to “fit in” socially on the outside was difficult, given the sense of shame of growing up in an institutional school. Survivors explained how they would invent a story to tell their new work colleagues or friends of where they grew up and where their families were now. They recall being on the “outside” of their circle of friends, lacking in confidence and being careful not to be caught out in their stories.

Relationships were a particular difficult issue for survivors, given the fact that industrial schools for older children were also single sex. Given the prevalence of sexual abuse in the industrial schools, survivors did not have a comprehension of what constituted normal consensual sexual behaviour between adults. Furthermore, the nuns made a particular point of warning girls to stay away from men without giving them any sex education. For many, there is a sad sense of missed opportunities for the relationship they did not get to experience in their younger days.

Marital disharmony or separation arose frequently in discussions with survivors. For many, this related to when they told their spouses about the experience in the institutions. For others, it resulted from the pressures of long periods of unemployment or alcohol abuse. Furthermore, growing up in an institutional environment meant that survivors had a lack of experience of forming lasting relationships and had no models from which to learn. Those who had children outlined the difficulties in parenting, since they had no role models of their own. Some recalled giving their children everything they wanted without establishing boundaries and others were unsure of how to be affectionate with their children in an appropriate manner. Others worried about being too regimental with their children, as the strict regime of the institution was the only parenting model they had experienced.

Finding employment was difficult for many, as they left the institutions with low levels of literacy. Some felt institutionalised in their employment. Frequently, concern was expressed about patients being discharged from psychiatric wards too soon. While they understand the capacity problem concerning crisis beds, they feel that the circumstances of some of their fellow survivors should necessitate keeping them in for observation for a longer period.

Acting Chairman

The Deputy has one minute remaining.

Deputy Dan Neville

Some of these people have nowhere to go when they are discharged. There was some discussion about the usefulness of a nursing home or halfway house for survivors who have to leave hospital but are not well enough to return to independent living in the community.

I will quote from a professional who identified suicidal behaviour among survivors. Speaking about a married woman, the professional stated:

I do not think she will ever tell him because when he hears the [television] programmes, he says “look at all those dreadful people lying just to get money”, so of course she is never going to. “That never happened,” he says, so she will never tell him now. Well, she says she will not. So, all her life this was a piece kept away. Her deepest friends do not know … and her husband knows nothin