Mental Illness, Economic Difficulties and Marital Separation are features of Rural Suicide
Dan Neville TD, President Irish Association of Suicidology
Features of suicidal actions in rural areas include mental illness, economic difficulties and marital separation. In terms of male attitudes to mental distress and coping methods exacerbated the difficulties.
A study by UCD Dublin and Teagasc involving men over 18 years of age who were admitted to hospitals for a suicide attempt or serious self harming over a period of 17 months has found that half of those participating were currently unemployed and came overwhelming from unskilled backgrounds, only two men had a third level qualification. A lack of social resources or support was a contributory factor in that the majority were single or separated and they were also constrained by a lack of recreational facilities as well as the absence of public transport.
Male attitudes to mental distress and help seeking and denial of problems and a negative attitude towards self-seeking is also of concern. The men had a traditional view of masculinity which included the projection of strength in the face of distress. When they were able to meet these they felt emotional vulnerable and used alcohol in an attempt to cope and conceal their distress. Alcohol misuse is therefore key to understanding the development of problems as well as the decisions to attempt suicide.
Social economic and psychological limitations in the lives of the men interviewed and by the male attitude they adhered to reduce the possibility that they would in the first place identify those problems and therefore seek timely and appropriate help. Therefore both rural factors, especially lack of employment opportunities and the stigma attached to mental illness and the traditional male attitudes to health issues as well as lack of support and treatment options made the improvement of their difficulties unlikely in these cases.
The main agriculture factors identified in suicidal behaviour was stress and disillusionment with economically vulnerable farming systems and in the context of changing agriculture, social, cultural and technological adaptation difficulties. In terms of suicide prevention the main implications are the practices pursued by men which are detrimental to their health. These include the cultural acceptance of alcohol, the stigma that still surrounds mental illness and the non availability of support and services for mental distress.
Farm life and practices have been markedly changed by EU membership and there are significantly less farms than in the 1960’s. Values, including religious beliefs and participation, have similarly changed. These social and economic changes may have frequently been linked to rising suicide rates in Ireland.
The difficult economic circumstances for vulnerable people in the rural areas such as struggling to survive on small farms and for non farmers trying to find stable and meaningful employment when there were few job opportunities. The majority of non farming men were unemployed and unable to find work due to indeminic under employment in the rural areas in which they lived.
Farmers were finding it difficult to manage financially and to cope with increasingly vulnerable farming systems and the escalating pace of change and regulation. It is clear that this is challenging for their male identities. The economic recession is a contributing factor in that construction and building work which had previously provided work for non farmers and supplementary work for farmers is no longer available.
There is a dearth of recreational facilities in villages and towns and previous accessible sport, such as Gaelic football, are less so now with increasing the prefessionalisation. There are few or regular transport systems outside towns there was little opportunity for those in remote rural areas to access recreational facilities further afield. Lack of transport was therefore significant for both accessing job and recreational opportunities.
Rural men tend to be strongly connected with traditional models of masculinity. The type of masculinity requires physical and emotional strength, maintaining and providing for a family and hetrosexuatility. The men judged their own behaviour in this context and considered themselves lacking when they failed to live up to its expectations. Many of the men felt themselves to be failures. When they were distressed, they tended to conceal their distress and allow the problem to develop or to self medicate with alcohol. The kind of maleness they practiced therefore was frequently detrimental to their health. It is the way in which they define and deal with their difficulties rather than with the difficulties themselves which leads to suicidal behaviour. The male environment worked against the identification and disclosure of problems as well as efforts to seek assistance to deal with the difficulties. This was a common feature among men who attempted suicide.
The only refuse from distress in the rural areas studied was general the pub and only the only social acceptable coping mechanism was drinking alcohol. The pressure to be part of the drinking culture was immense as there were fewer alternative opportunities for socialising in villages and towns. Misuse of alcohol is an example of how rigid adherence to a traditional form of maleness locks men into performances which makes the development of problems more likely and then limits the likelihood of them seeking support.
Economic difficulties, especially finding to employment and survive economically on small farms, were important in terms of decision to attempt suicide and so also was the loneliness and loss of identity following a marital breakdown. Many of the younger men had become demoralised by the lack of a job and a view that their future prospects were bleak. Older farmers saw themselves as marginalised and even useless in terms of both male and rural norms.
Community level help and support for emotional distress was not widely available and what was available was not the most appropriate. The most assessable source of assistance, the G.P., was not consulted about mental difficulties as he/she was not considered knowledgeable in relation to psychological problems. The G.P. was viewed as a source of medica