VIEW talks to professor about links between mental health and housing

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In the wake of the recent shocking suicide figures which revealed that more people in Northern Ireland have taken their lives in comparison to those killed during the Troubles, VIEW editor Brian Pelan spoke to Professor Siobhan O’Neill, above, about the links between mental health and housing

A recent report in the news which stated that more people have died by suicide in the past 17 years than were killed during 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland led me to meeting Professor Siobhan O’Neill from the Ulster University.

I wanted to ask Siobhan, who is the professor of mental health services at the university, what lies behind this grim statistic and what is the connection between mental health and housing.

We spoke over coffee in the Mac in Belfast. Amidst the hustle and bustle of coffees and food being served, Siobhan, who speaks softly but forcibly, said: “It is not just a mental health issue. All the conditions in which a person lives – their social environment – all of those things will impact on this behavior.

“Suicide is an outcome of a behavior – it’s not an illness. Suicide is something that people do. When suicidal behaviour is related to mental illness, the death by suicide is a factor of not only a person’s thoughts, but whether or not they have the capacity and the means to enact the suicidal behaviour.

siobhan MAC copy

‘Anything that helps to create meaningful lives for people who feel like their lives have no meaning is needed’

“We can design houses that are suicide safer. We can make sure that windows can’t be opened far enough, or there aren’t any ledges high enough. In prisons and schools and university accommodation… they are actually identifying this. We can remove ligature points, we can make sure there are no beams that the person can hang themselves from.

“Also, owning a home and your housing circumstances are so tied in to our sense of self and our pride in this culture, then losing your house or being forced to take a regressive house and move back with your family can be seen as a failure. We can see that men for whom that happens to… it hurts them very, very deeply.”

Siobhan went on to add that “insecurity generally is a factor in suicides, and if there was economic insecurity about the living circumstances of the person then certainly it would be. It would very rarely be recorded in the police witness statement… it’s more about social relationships, but the housing is a symbol of that”.

“I think the cultural sense of home ownership is crucial. I think we need to move away from that. The idea that in order to be a successful human being, you need to be a family unit with your own house with your partner and your kids, because that is very very damaging, because that model very rarely applies.

“The traditional model of the family in the home that’s owned and paid for by the man… that doesn’t apply, but yet men still feel like a failure if their lives don’t match that model. Seventy-five per cent of suicides are men, and most of the people who die by suicide are living alone. The highest proportion are living alone and a high proportion are unemployed.”

With her hands firmly placed on the table, Siobhan, with anger in her voice now, goes on to say: “I’m talking about social justice – I did a TED talk on this. I’m talking about how we value people in different circumstances and how people are valued and how people feel that their lives have meaning, and part of that really is mental illness. Most people with mental health problems don’t die of suicide. And if you’ve got somebody who feels that their life’s gone to pot, medication’s not going to help that. If the wife’s left them, they’ve had to move back to the family home, they can’t access their children – there are live event factors that are clearly critically important, and financial factors.

“We see in the Republic that there’s been an increase in the deaths by suicide … 500 extra deaths as a result of the recession. “Deprivation explains the rate. Social deprivation, poverty, economic deprivation.” I asked Siobhan, as a possible solution to the rise in suicides, does she support the concept of more decent social housing?

“Absolutely,” she replied. “We know that ghettos have effectively been created, and you have areas where there are lots of social disadvantage, and yet you still have to marry that with the desire of people wanting to live in their own communities, close to their families, so we need to find a solution for that. I’m not a housing expert so I don’t know, but you need to give people a sense of purpose and hope for the future, and give them a place to live that reflects that. And that means believing in young people and actually giving them the resources themselves. “I think that welfare reform and the implementation of welfare reform is going to lead to more suicides in Ireland.

“Anything that helps to create meaningful lives for people who feel like their lives have no meaning is needed. It could be affordable decent housing that allows people to live in dignity.

“Housing policy is a key part of it. In the context of economic policy and social policy, it fits within all of those areas, but culturally we need to look at home ownership and what that means and start moving away from that.

“In other European countries it’s completely socially acceptable to rent a house. In my peer group, if you didn’t own a house in the middle of the boom then there was something wrong with you and you failed… you know, all that carry on has led to the high suicide rates we’ve got now.”

I firmly believe that more people and organisations need to listen to what Siobhan is saying.

We all could start by watching her recent TED talk in Omagh, ‘Suicide Prevention is a Social Justice Issue’ – http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/Suicide-Prevention-is-a-Social;search%3AOmagh

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