SEVEN years ago this week, Articlave in Northern Ireland laid to rest a young man I did a lot of life with as a young adult.
His name – and many of you will know and remember with me – was Jonny. Even now, all these years later, it seems strange to write about Jonny in solid past tense.
The 28-year-old’s life was cut short, by so many years, as yet another tragic victim of the scourge of suicide Northern Ireland has such an ongoingly terrible unspoken issue with – particularly amongst young men.
Suicide is just swept underneath the carpet, perhaps most notably in ‘Middle Class’ Christian circles, so for that reason and many more, I just thought I would write a quick article on this, and take time to remember someone who impacted me quite a lot in that period of life. This article isn’t designed to lecture or offer all the answers, but simply remember with dignity, and hopefully stimulate some further thought.
According to data obtained from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency and also from the Registrar General’s quarterly reports, last year alone saw 318 deaths registered as suicides in Northern Ireland. Of these, 243 (77%) were male.
Historic data held by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, has also been able to be used in 2016 to calculate that a total of 7,697 suicides were registered in Northern Ireland from the beginning of 1970 to the end of 2015. Of these deaths, 5,666 were males.
Let’s face it Northern Ireland: we have a serious suicide issue which very little is being done to effectively help or diminish. It continually ‘bothers’ me. It doesn’t scare me like it does most, it simply very much bothers me. (Hence my flirtation with Mental Health Nursing. I am very thankful God allowed me to experience all that I did from within my six months of it, but then pull me out of it’s controlling, stifling clutches. Will save that one for another day!).
Jonny feels like he should be more than just another statistic, perhaps somewhat selfishly not least because he and I co-led a team a very impacting team to St. Petersburg, Russia, back in 2002, with the local Christian charity, ‘Exodus,’ which some of you reading this will know of, or even have been involved with yourselves.
For three weeks, together with another co-leader from USA, we undertook the arguably unenviable task of leading a lively bunch of local teenagers to carry out voluntary work in some very economically poor parts of the former Soviet superpower.
I earned Jonny’s (hard to earn!) respect after co-ordinating a practical project to re-paint a children’s centre in a suburb of Russia’s second city, and undertook several other projects in a children’s orphanage which will live long in my memory. Not least because of bumping into ‘Fergie’ – the former Duchess of York – along the way and being interviewed by her TV crew. Somewhat surreal, to say the least.
Jonny’s untimely death this very week in November 2009 shook the local North Coast community at the time, and the hundreds of people who knew him or his family. His Facebook page still bears the same profile picture it did just before he died, standing still amidst time, offering a haunting reminder of someone who once was, but no longer is, of this earth.
For me, it was a double whammy blow, as my nephew was also critically ill at the time and fighting for his life in Great Ormond Street Hospital. Thankfully God did a miracle and the latter is still with us, enjoying life.
It had been Jonny himself who had comforted me and mourned with me at the funeral of another of my friends who had passed away in a tragic accident just a couple of years prior to this. Ironically, this other friend also happened to have passed away in St. Petersburg, Russia. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
All of a sudden, in November 2009, I found myself grieving again, only this time the very one who previously offered comfort.
One wonders what lessons, if any, have really been learned from Jonny’s tragic passing. I can only hope – perhaps naively – that there have been some. Though the stark figures for suicides in Northern Ireland show little hope of this. They are at their highest level ever (again according to figures obtained from this year, 2016, from the NI Statistics and Research Agency). The reasons are varied and complex, not just mental health issues, as the mental health professionals would have everyone believe, but spirituality plays a bigger part than most professionals would care to admit – though those who are wise , do.
The current Government-funded radio and television adverts, though, do little to offer hope – (is it just me, or are they the most depressing ads ever seen or heard on local media?!)
By the time someone is at the point of suicide, there is a very major spiritual force of darkness at work which means the person is far from simply acting in his/her right mind. He/she is to be pitied, not judged or righteously condemned. There are very real unseen forces at work, and I would argue that the power of God at this point is one of the few sources of true help which has the power to intervene with a truly positive outcome. I have seen this happen, and do know that this is possible. If you don’t believe me, let’s get a coffee sometime.
If the mental health hospital I worked in a year in a year ago, though, is anything to go by, current NHS Health service provision most certainly isn’t the solution. Heavily sedating and hiding the problems, yes, but not helping or fixing. (Will save that one for another day!). The truth is I never knew the exact circumstances of Jonny’s departure from this earth, because frankly I never wanted to, but Jonny felt unable to reach out for true help from so many well-meaning folks all around him, all there, and I wonder if any of the real lessons that were to be learned from it all really ever have been? Again, let’s hope I am wrong.
Today, as I happened to be driving past the church building where hundreds of mourners gathered this time 7 years ago on a cold, ferociously unfavourable, wet Sunday afternoon to bury the 28-year-old former Coleraine Inst’ pupil, I found myself prodded to stop and go pay my respects at his grave. Truth be told, it was the very first time I have ever been able to do so. It has taken me seven years to go visit Jonny’s grave. Perhaps laziness. Perhaps denial. Probably a bit of both and more.
In the midst of modern day living, (and so much of it so frivolous and unnecessary, not to mention unfruitful), I am glad I took time to pay my respects and stop and upset my schedule to stop and remember Jonny. I would like to think that if I had passed away, maybe someone out there would do the same for me, but I am aware that they easily may not.
Life is actually quite fragile. I am realizing all the more how precious each day is and time with folks. The kindness, warmth, banter, annoyingness(!) and down-right decency of Jonny Hyndman exchanged with me over the years I knew him have etched themselves upon me, and I will never forget him, that his life would not be in vain. Though of course life moves on, (and rightly it should), we can healthily reflect and remember loved ones, without it being an unhealthy tie.
Feel free to comment and leave a story or two of Jonny if you wish.
As for Northern Ireland’s often silent, unspoken killer, recently the current Sinn Fein Health Minister Michelle O’Neill said that the suicide rate was, “unacceptably high in the North,” and that reducing the rate continued to be an urgent priority for her department.
“High levels of deprivation, the legacy of conflict and high levels of mental ill-health create a very challenging set of circumstances for many people in the north of Ireland,” the minister explained.
Let’s not forget the heavily spiritual land we’re from, and be strong and smart enough to question the rhetoric we are ‘fed’ as the stand alone reasons for such acts.
And let’s hold her to account.
If you are directly affected by any of these poignant issues, here are a few pointers towards some further help from within the UK:
- Lifeline, the confidential crisis response helpline service for people experiencing distress or despair can be contacted on 0808 808 8000.
- The Samaritans can be contacted by telephone on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org