Kirstin Stoddart is a writer and producer originally from Australia, but now based in Wiltshire in the UK. Here, she writes about a killer that the Irish are still afraid to talk about. Her play, BRB, takes place later this evening in Cork.
If there were a serial killer going around and targeting teenagers, Ireland would be in uproar. If there were a disease that attacked young, healthy adults, there would be fundraising and viral internet marketing, demand for a cure. The thing is, there is something in Ireland that is claiming the lives of young people, and it’s being swept under the rug.
In this beautiful country (which has the fourth-highest rate of youth suicide in Europe) suicide is the leading cause of death among young men between the ages of 15 and 24. In both genders, 15-17 is the highest-level danger zone. So why is suicide still a taboo?
I remember the first time I heard of a young person committing suicide in the small city in Australia that I grew up in. I was fourteen years old. At school that morning, everything was hushed; the teachers spoke in whispers and there was an energy all through the building. We were sat down and informed that a student at our ‘brother school’ had jumped in front of the train that morning. They wouldn’t tell us his name, and they wouldn’t tell us any more information. Only years later did it occur to me that we were offered no kind of explanation, no kind of counselling, and certainly no opportunity to ask questions or talk about suicide. As young people, we are protected from it; hidden away. Is the problem then that, as we grow older and become the adults, we, in turn, have learned this bad habit?
Over and over, we see vibrant young people disappearing from the earth by their own hands, and, over and over, we hear people say that they didn’t know; never saw it coming; can’t imagine why. It could be argued, however, that we just aren’t looking hard enough.
Out of 104 case studies in his Suicide in Ireland study, Kevin M. Malone came to find that 44 had left a note or sent a text. 62 had an Axis I psychiatric disorder lifetime diagnosis; 46 had, at some point, been on psychotropic medication; 29 had had a psychiatric hospitalisation. 48 had a diagnosis of major depression, 34 had previously attempted suicide, and 25 had ‘unequivocally’ conveyed their intent to take their own lives in the month leading up to the event.
So if young people are being treated for mental illness, being hospitalised for mental illness, showing signs of major depression and, in some cases, telling people that they are planning to kill themselves, why is it ever getting to the point where they have had no help?
Having lived with depression and anxiety for nearly ten years myself, I have often wondered at the treatment of those with mental illnesses. The key is in the name: illness. We may not be talking about cancer, and we may not be talking about physical disability, but sufferers of mental health issues carry a constant burden; in some cases a chronic pain; yet conditions such as depression, anxiety and personality disorders are still considered by many to be minor afflictions suffered by those with a penchant for drama or a touch of self-indulgence. Mental health is a taboo, and something to be ashamed of.
Last year, I packed up my life and I moved to England to begin a Master’s degree in scriptwriting, and I was terrified. All I knew was that I had promised myself that as I took these 12 months ‘off’ to write, I would tell the truth in what I wrote. As I learned to ‘go towards the pain’ (in the words of my first tutor, Ursula Rani Sarma, an Irish native and brilliant writer), I began to remember all the people I’d met through my life who had suffered from secret panics, from ‘Imposter Syndrome’; those who had tried to please their families to the point where they didn’t feel they had their own identity anymore. There were those who, like me, struggled in coming to terms with their sexual identity; those who did not know what their place in this world was to be. From these memories and seeds came the beginnings of BRB.
Through the tears and the panic of university classmate critique and feedback from the very talented but also very honest Jessie Kirby, who came on board as director and brought her own imagination & experience to the table,my coursework exercise developed into a very real and very, very pertinent play.
It’s been seven months now since I handed in that piece of work, and I could never have imagined how many people it would touch. On board, as I mentioned, came Jessie Kirby and her brother Edgar (playing the role of Donnie) and sister, Rebecca (assistant director), who have had two cousins take their own lives in the last year, one just this morning (at time of writing) in the local gardai station. His name was Nathan Kirby, and he was 21 years old.
During the casting process, we met Amylee Lawlor, whose ex-partner committed suicide just eleven months ago, at the age of 22. Amylee, at 20 years old, is a suicide prevention advocate with a strong community voice, and her performance as Lucy, a teenager on the outskirts of mainstream society, has been described as nothing short of electric.
We’ve had tears from audiences in Dublin and Dungarvan. Not one performance has passed without at least one audience member telling us that they’ve been through what our characters went through; they’ve seen their teenaged child go through this experience and have that conversation. They’ve lost someone, too.
This is the reason BRB came into being. Society, as a whole, does not talk about mental illness and suicide enough, and it has to stop. It has been shown that suicide has a ‘ripple’ effect, and almost anyone reading this will know that it’s a painful pill to swallow for those who are left behind. So perhaps, instead of arresting teenagers who are standing on bridges, ready to jump, we should be asking questions.
We should be talking about suicide, depression, stress, grief and trauma instead of filing it in the ‘too hard’ box. We need to be teaching children, teenagers and adults that it is not a shameful thing to feel this way, and that they are not alone. We need to open this dialogue and invite everyone in, and take away the embarrassment and awkwardness associated with talking about mental health. Then, perhaps, we will stop losing so many of our young people and the lives they could have lived.
And maybe it takes dragging your friend/parent/sister/brother/cousin/workmate/dog to a dark comedy play to get the ball rolling. Because, as George Bernard Shaw said, ‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’
BRB, is playing on August 1st at the Camden Palace Hotel theatre, Cork. Tickets are €10 and available on the door. For group bookings, please call +353 (0)83 172 5948.