North Belfast’s suicide crisis – does community investment help?

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 A new report from mental health charity Samaritans has shown that suicide rates for men and women are higher in Northern Ireland than in other regions of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. As of 2017, the suicide rate per 100,000 of the population in NI was 18.5. In comparison, the rate per 100,000 in England in the same period was 9.7.

The circumstances that may lead someone to take their own life are varied and cannot be simplified. It is often a culmination of factors such as poor mental health, drug misuse, unemployment, and poverty that lead to a higher risk of suicidal thoughts and tendencies. In researching any one of these factors and their relationship to suicide, it is imperative to note that one stand-alone factor does not provide the full picture.

The Lighthouse Charity is based in North Belfast and works with the families of those who have been impacted by suicide. Jo Murphy, the charity’s co-ordinator, urges that “every suicide is a very individual thing”; however, she emphasised that deprivation is often an underlying factor that impacts suicide. She argues that we need a “bottom-up” approach to deal with our suicide crisis, as opposed to our current reactive response after each instance of suicide.  This is echoed by the Samaritans in their 2017 ‘Dying from Inequality’ report, as they say “suicide is a major inequality issue.”

The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) Multiple Deprivation Index from 2017 shows that five out of the top ten most deprived areas in Northern Ireland fall within the North Belfast constituency area. It is hard to compare the multiple deprivation figures over time, as NISRA state they are intended as “a spatial ranking at a single point of time.” However, the three most deprived DEAs in 2010 remained the most deprived in 2017 (Belfast West, Belfast North, Foyle).

In looking at these deprivation figures, I wished to look deeper at this area that I call home. I decided to look at the levels of community investment into North Belfast to see if this had any correlation to the high suicide figures coming out of particular wards.

A Freedom of Information request made to Belfast City Council for community investment figures spanning from 2010-19 showed that the wards in North Belfast with the highest suicide rates tended to have a higher level of investment from the council. Community investment includes youth centres, churches, community gardens and more. Suicide statistics from NISRA taken from the electoral wards of North Belfast from 2014-18 show the extent of the crisis. The total population of the six wards in the Oldpark DEA during this time was 34,588 and this area was shown to have 72 suicides from 2014-18. In the same time period, the neighbouring Castle DEA had a population of 29,794 with 50 deaths by suicide occurring. Even taking population figures into account, this is a notable increase in suicide figures in nearby areas.

Suicide rate per 1,000 population in North Belfast’s electoral wards

The total investment from Belfast City Council into these areas is also dramatically different. From 2010-19, the Castle DEA received £2,505,609 in investment compared to the Oldpark DEA’s £4,949,763.

Comparison of investment and suicide statistics in the two District Electoral Areas (DEA’s) of North Belfast

These investment figures can also be viewed visually as placed on a map here.*

However, there are some wards that do not follow this pattern of high suicides in areas with high levels of investment. For instance, the Chichester Park ward in the Castle DEA recorded 18 suicides from 2014-18, the highest number in any North Belfast ward when population is taken into consideration. At the same time, this ward only received £32,102 in investment per thousand of the population. This is a low level of investment compared to other wards in North Belfast, showing that high community investment in an area does not always mean a high rate of suicide.

Stephen Barr is a member of the Belfast Forum for Suicide Prevention, and services manager for Start360; a Belfast-based organisation offering support services to young people. He said that currently in Northern Ireland, ongoing initatives such as the Protect Life 2 Strategy are aiming to address the social and economic issues related to the context of suicide across the country.

He continued: “Until dual diagnosis is supported and recognised along with priority in regard to the presenting social and economic issues, the changes we would like to see won’t happen.” Dual diagnosis is when an individual is diagnosed as suffering with a mental illness and an alcohol or drug abuse issue. This shows the importance of looking at the issue of suicide in a multifaceted way.

I spoke to Cllr Mal O’Hara, the Green Party representative for Castle DEA, about what these figures mean and what the council’s strategy is in dealing with rising suicide statistics. He emphasised that it is unacceptable that the same areas in North Belfast that have been deprived and struggling for decades are still in the same situation. He said that Belfast City Council try to focus their spending on deprived areas to try and “alieviate some of the outcomes” that deprivation has on communities. Cllr O’Hara stressed that the past decade of austerity has only worsened the deprivation in such areas that suffer “the brunt of the damage”, and urged that the Northern Irish Assembly need to do more to deal with this growing issue.

 For him, the way forward to solve the issues with deprivation, and ultimately reduce the suicide statistics in areas like North Belfast, is by establishing a Green New Deal for Northern Ireland. Cllr O’Hara went on to say that such a deal would “make people feel they have a stake in society” by distributing resources fairly, ultimately making communities healthier and happier.

*Colour key for the Google map: each ward in North Belfast DEA:

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