Powerful personal stories stand out at this year’s Lighthouse suicide prevention conference in Belfast

Some of the participants at this year's Lighthouse conference

By VIEWdigital editor Brian Pelan

Two very poignant events stood out for me when I attended the Lighthouse ‘Twenty Years of Learning’ Conference 2023 at the Girwood Community Hub in Belfast last week.

One of them was a panel discussion, chaired by BBC NI presenter Tara Mills, which featured Niamh Brownlee (author of Struggling to Breathe – the diary of a psychiatric inpatient and Lighthouse user); Pat McGibbon (former Manchester United and Northern Ireland footballer and founder of Train 2B Smart); and Mark Robson (sports broadcaster for over 40 years, Ambassador at Lighthouse and author of The Genius Killer).

PANEL: Niamh Brownlee, left, with Pat McGibbon and Mark Robson

Carryduff woman Niamh, who was admitted to hospital when she was 24 after struggling for years with depression, anxiety and bulimia, told of her decision to keep a diary which was turned into a book; Pat talked about his brother Phillip who took his own life in 1993; and Mark spoke about his own mental health struggles.

All three, with their own, very personal stories, struck a powerful chord with the audience.

The second event was the premiere screening of a short film Crusts (writer Ben Ferrity/director Alfie Dale) which tells the story of a family gathering at the graveside of a father who took his own life. The idea of the four individuals eating sandwiches as they talk about their late dad (or in the case of the son who refuses to talk about it) shows the trauma that suicide inflicts on those left behind to cope and how there is no ‘right way’ to talk about its effect on you. It’s a compelling film and I hope it is seen by many people and picks up lots of awards.

I was also glad to see suicide prevention campaigner Philip McTaggart getting mentioned and praised at the conference. Philip’s son, also called Philip, took his own life on April 23, 2003.

Paul Finnegan, chief executive of Lighthouse

I managed to have a few words with Lighthouse chief executive Paul Finnegan during the conference.

I asked Paul what are the key steps needed to tackle the issue of suicide?

“We need to get to the stage where more people are talking to each other about suicide. We also need to remove the stigma of talking about suicide,” replied Paul.

“We also have around 27 organisations in Northern Ireland getting funded for suicide prevention work. It would be good to have a more combined effort to give out an all Ireland message about suicide prevention.

“And the last thing is that I would encourage people is to have a significant other in their lives. A person who you can talk to and who won’t judge you if you are experiencing difficulties.”

Suicide prevention volunteer Jim Pierce on the front cover of the very first edition of VIEW magazine in 2012

On a personal note, I was also pleased to hear the late Lighthouse volunteer Jim Pierce getting mentioned. Jim, whose two daughters took their own lives, was the main story in the very first edition of VIEW in 2012. He died in 2014.

I met him at his home in north Belfast. Over cups of tea I listened as Jim spoke about his devastating story and why he had chosen to help other families affected by suicide.

“When I go to the Lighthouse charity in the morning I will meet someone who is walking the same road,” said Jim. “Part of what I do is talking to other people who have also lost loved ones through suicide. I always pray that the tragedy of suicide doesn’t come to someone else’s door.”

The figures of those who take their own lives in Northern Ireland is still appallingly high. We owe it to all those who have died and those left behind to cope to ensure that the state devotes proper resources to tackle the issue of suicide.

Funding cuts must cease. And issues such as the lack of public housing and economic deprivation must also be challenged.

• To find out more about the work of Lighthouse, go to lighthousecharity.com/