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July 14, 2021

‘Take it from someone who didn’t talk and it ended up with me nearly in a coffin: Open up and talk.’

The Young Offenders tells how help is out there for anyone thinking about taking their own life — and that starts by discussing it with your loved ones.

It was the kind of tweet that stops you in your tracks. “This day 2 years ago I was going to try to kill myself in my garage. Thankfully I was stopped by my parents and boyfriend. To people who feel like giving up, please don’t. Please open up about how you are feeling. I promise you it gets better. Happy anniversary to me.”

Its author on that grey Tuesday morning in March was Cork actor Jennifer Barry, (20), poster girl for hilarity as hapless Jock’s girlfriend Siobhan on the RTÉ/BBC comedy series The Young Offenders. “The feedback the tweet got was so lovely,” Barry says over a Zoom call from her campus accommodation in University College Cork, where she is studying theatre and performative practices on a Quercus Talented Students scholarship.

“People were sharing their own experiences, which I think is really important, and even talking about how the tweet reminded them to keep going, which is crazy. There was a very positive response and people were opening up and willing to talk about suicide more, which is the only reason I put it up in the first place.”

Barry was in her Leaving Cert year and unknowingly suffering from clinical depression when she began to think about ending her life. “I was just a zombie. It’s not youinside there any more. It’s a heavy presence,” she says of the illness that “took over my mind totally”.

On the outside, she appeared to have it all — a successful acting career and a loving family and community. But Barry had composed a goodbye text to her mother when her then boyfriend’s persistent concerned questions led her to blurt out her intentions.

Her parents arranged for her to see a GP, who referred her to a psychiatrist — and she got a diagnosis. “I was so happy that I wasn’t crazy and that this is an actual illness that is beatable,” says Barry, who is still on medication for her depression and has regular counselling. It took her over a year to feel better but now she sees “everything in colour again”.

“Just talk,” is her advice for anyone who is feeling suicidal. “Take it from someone who didn’t talk and it ended up with me nearly in a coffin, to be quite stark and to be quite real about it. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Open up and talk. There are people out there that do this for a living and that want to help you.”

Concerns are continually raised about people’s mental health bearing the brunt of the long stint of harsh but necessary Covid-19 restrictions. Lockdown suicide statistics, nationally or internationally, have yet to be measured, but last November the British Medical Journal listed several factors underpinning concerns, including that previous epidemics such as Sars saw a rise in deaths by suicide.

“Prevention must be prioritised while we wait for a clearer picture,” it added, because suicide — the ‘permanent solution to a temporary problem’ — is preventable.

Fiona Tuomey lost her beautiful, funny, kind daughter Milly (11), to suicide on January 4, 2016. “I feel sad for Milly, for all she is missing out on and all that she could have been and enjoyed,” says Tuomey, who founded the suicide bereavement support charity Hugg in 2018. Independent.ie readers may remember a moving open letter Fiona wrote to Marie Sullivan, who shared the story of her daughter Arwen’s death by suicide in January.

Tuomey strongly recommends that people educate themselves with suicide first-aid courses such as safeTALK (Suicide Alertness for Everyone) and ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training), both offered free of charge to the general public by the HSE.

“These courses are massively useful from a suicide-prevention point of view. It’s CPR for the brain. They were very difficult to do after a bereavement because you’re going: ‘Why didn’t I have these tools? Why didn’t anybody tell me to do this?’ It was a bit like learning CPR after someone has already died of a heart attack.”

Milly was self-critical and body-conscious and had expressed suicidal ideation on social media and in a notebook she kept under her bed. Her terrified parents immediately sought help for their cherished daughter but at the time of her death, Milly was on a waiting list to be seen by the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).

Tuomey, who has an older daughter, Daisy, has since spoken of the need for a suicide-prevention authority and proactive 24/7 support, because “sending anyone to A&E who has a mental health crisis is an abomination”.

She has completed an MSc in Loss and Bereavement from the Royal College of Surgeons, along with the suicide alertness courses. What tools did she learn?

“I think the most important one is asking somebody are they thinking of suicide. I never knew that was OK. I never knew you could actually say the word ‘suicide’ to somebody who you think might be in distress or might be suicidal.

“I was misinformed. I thought that would make them more suicidal, but in fact it’s the complete opposite. It’s a release valve. It allows people to talk about how they’re feeling.

“The very act of asking that question, ‘are you thinking of dying by suicide?’ is a huge relief to the person hearing it.”

And if they say yes?

“Ask them: ‘Will you allow me to contact somebody to get you some help?’”

The first port of call is their GP, who may refer them to a psychiatrist for assessment. In the meantime, there is a free 24-hour text service to 50808, which provides a safe space where you’re listened to by a trained volunteer, and a range of supports from other suicide-prevention charities like the Samaritans (tel: 116 123), Pieta House and the 3Ts (Turn The Tide of Suicide).

Hugg is entirely voluntary and runs peer support groups led by trained facilitators for people bereaved by suicide. “What we do is suicide prevention. Providing support to people who’ve been bereaved by suicide is suicide prevention because when you’re bereaved by suicide you’re 10 times more at risk of dying by suicide,” says Tuomey. “That’s a fact. And there are up to 135 people affected by every suicide — another fact. It’s not just the immediate family. You’ve got friends, you’ve got maybe people who witnessed a suicide, you’ve got the paramedics, frontline workers, GPs, therapists. It’s the pebble in the pond, the ripples just keep expanding.”

The most recent Irish figures show 421 deaths by suicide in 2019, compared to 148 road deaths that year. The rate of suicide in Limerick city was seven times higher than in Dublin, and three times more men than women died by suicide.

 “I’ve spoken to people who said, ‘I saw you on The Late Late Show’,” says Tuomey, of her appearance on the programme with her husband, Tim, to talk about Milly’s high-profile case in December 2017. And then some of those people have ended up coming to our Hugg groups. That’s the reality. Nobody is immune.”

Singer Abecca Hewson (23), knows this only too well.

On February 4, 2019, her beautiful sister Alli MacDonnell (37) — a mother of four and a well-known model with Andrea Roche’s AR Model Agency — died by suicide.

“We did not see it coming,” Hewson says. “Our family is brokenhearted. All we do is talk about her.”

Ona Tuomey
Fiona Tuomey founder and CEO of HUGG (Healing Untold Grief Groups). Photograph by: Steve Humphreys

Fiona Tuomey describes every suicide as “a grenade” thrown into the family, “and the shrapnel wounds are huge and vast”. This has been the Hewson family’s experience too.

“When we have our gatherings Alli is not there and she was always the host, so you can imagine. She wasn’t just someone who was there – she was the main person,” Hewson says. “She was beautiful but she wasn’t stuck-up. She was great craic with the dirtiest laugh. People loved her for her personality.”

She was a keen cook and loved having her large family of eight siblings over for dinner to try out her “next level” recipes. A devoted mother, she became an ambassador for Irish Autism Action after her son was diagnosed with the condition in 2016. “Alli not being there now, we’re just brokenhearted. A lot of us have had to go to therapy, we’ve all had sleepless nights, we’ve all been tortured with what we could have done. Especially me, who was so close to her.”

Alli was almost 17 when Hewson was born. Nurturing by nature, she doted on her baby sister. “She always used to say to me that I was like her first daughter. Growing up, she was my idol. We just had something really special between us.

“She was very magical; I remember as a child when she put me to bed she’d get fairy dust and she’d sprinkle it all over me and tell me a big magical story about fairies, ‘...because tonight you’ll fly!’ She was almost like a Disney princess and as a child, obviously, you’re gonna love that.”

In later years, the sisters bonded over a shared love of singing and music. Alli was in a girl band called Blaze until motherhood and modelling took over. “She always used to be singing around the house and because she was always singing and dancing I got a passion for singing and dancing too,” Hewson says.

She has coped with her grief by writing and recording music, available now on her Instagram (@abeccahewson) and Facebook pages. Her poignant song You Said is about the advice Alli gave her — to keep her head high and not be defeated — and her confusion now that her chief confidante is gone. “That song is me expressing how I felt, just the shock of it all. Music is like therapy for me now. Alli was always my number-one fan and I feel closer to her when I’m singing and writing songs.”

She chose the artist name Abecca because it is how Alli’s daughter, Siena, pronounces her real name, Rebecca.  “I love her to pieces,” she says of her niece, who now lives with Hewson’s older sister Emma.

Hewson was studying Italian and Spanish in UCD at the time of Alli’s death but struggled to focus on writing essays afterwards. She deferred her studies and began a fitness course, finding it easier to distract herself in the gym. “Grieving a suicide is a verydifferent type of grieving. You’re left with a kind of sense of guilt and of what you could have done. How did you not see it coming? It can be quite torturing, to be honest.”

Counselling sessions have helped with the endless question: ‘Why?’

“Therapists tell you you can’t blame yourself because at the end of the day if a person makes that decision, it’s their decision. But it is very hard. It never goes away.

“You cannot blame a person but you can help to prevent it happening again by just talking more about mental health. It’s really important to check up on people. Everyone is struggling with their mental health, especially after this lockdown.”

Along with her music, Hewson has found succour in her Christian faith. “My mum and I feel like we will see Alli again one day, 100pc. So I’m looking forward to that time, and I can’t wait for her to just tell me: ‘Girl, you rocked it!’”

Grief hits at the unlikeliest of moments, like one night when Hewson was out with friends.

“I couldn’t enjoy myself because I felt like I kept seeing Alli. We used to love dancing together and whenever I dance, it’s like I feel her around me. And then I started roaring [crying] in the middle of the nightclub.”

Writing, recording and performing her music is her greatest release. Other songs tackle bullying and leaving toxic relationships. “My biggest happiness would be for someone to talk to me and say: ‘Your music actually got me through this. You saved me in this situation.’ Helping people with my music would be a comfort to me in comparison to the way I feel like I couldn’t help my sister.”

Help is out there. So is hope and recovery.

Jennifer Barry, who recently signed to agencies in London and LA, does not take any of it for granted. “I woke up and I knew exactly what day it was and the date,” she says, of March 2 this year, the second anniversary of her decision not to end her life.

“It was just such a sense of pride and such a sense of achievement. I felt the sense of relief, as well, that I didn’t do it. That I was able to be here to put up that tweet itself was a miracle. I just felt very humbled and honoured.”

If you are affected by the issues in this article, see Hugg.ie

We Can Help

HUGG is a self-help organisation. We provide a safe, confidential environment in which those bereaved by suicide can share their experiences and feelings, and thereby giving and gaining support from each other.. The aftermath of a suicide is shocking, debilitating, surreal, life changing. But you can learn to live with this loss. It is not easy, but we are here to help.
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