Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, a day of grief and pain for many but as Pieta show, it can be a day of hope. The charity is once again running its 'Know the Signs of Suicide' campaign, which aims to teach people how to spot when someone is at risk of suicide.

We spoke to presenter and Pieta ambassador Stephen Byrne about mental health after the pandemic, how to address issues head on and why we still have a sense of taboo around talking about suicide.

Stephen Byrne. Photo: Pieta

What drew you to this campaign?
I have worked alongside Pieta House on air and also fundraising the last few years and to be honest, any little thing I can do to help is a blessing. The work they do cannot be underestimated and as someone who has had experiences with negative mental health in the past, I know what it feels like to be in the position of a friend and someone who needs help.

Since the pandemic, mental health has been more spoken about. Do you feel we're at a better place of understanding suicide and mental health?
I think we are getting there. Events like Darkness Into Light have shown that people want to support and talk about the topic in way we as a country never engaged with it before. I think we just need empathy above all. You may not be able to understand how its feels to get to a point where you lose all hope but you can have compassion for them and not dismissiveness. I always remember one of the lowest points for me was one where people who have thought I was having the time of my life.

Suicide is still a largely taboo subject, how can that limit us in terms of raising awareness and reaching out to others?
It can not only make people uncomfortable when the subject is brought up but it also stops people talking. A lot of people see suicidal thoughts as something that happen to other people and that even if some level of ideation does enter their head that they will be fine because they don't realise where that can lead. We just need to have that dialogue, in schools, in workplaces, in sports clubs and family dinner tables that if you feel at risk, you can talk about it without being patronised or told to get yourself together.

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A central part to Pieta’s campaign is the APR approach - ask, persuade, refer. Why is honesty and confronting the situation head on so important?
Honesty is essential because it treats the situation in reality, as I said it can be very easy to dismiss the situation because you either never expected to end up with those thoughts or never thought your friend might get to that point where they need help. Being upfront, honest and confronting it head on treats it with the sense of realness it needs and also shows that these situations can be dealt with pragmatically. When I felt really lost, at my lowest, I reached out and my friend Emma helped me in a real logistical and straightforward way to get the help I needed.

Do you think we still have a stereotypical idea of what suicide ideation looks like in people?
I think we do and I think that falls down to the idea we have about many things in life that those sorts of things don't happen to us or come knocking on our doorstep. In reality we all struggle with our mental health, some more than others. Some people need a little more help, like myself with medication or therapy and others just a conversation with a friend or family member will do. I know that when I was at my lowest, it was unrecognisable from the outside. I didn't want to make it anyone else's problem.

As restrictions ease, there is a lot of conversation about the lasting negative effect of the pandemic on our collective mental health. What do you feel about that and how we can better look after ourselves and each other?
I think we all need to check up on our friends more than ever, ask twice if they are doing ok, we are programmed to say 'I'm grand' on the first go. Also we need to cut ourselves a break, there will be some element of PTSD at play for all us, and we shouldn't ever compare ourselves to how others are doing as we start to reopen as we have all had different experiences of the last year.

What would be your message to people who are or have considered suicide?
Talk to family, talk to a friend or if all else fails, reach out to a stranger who you think could help. Remember a time you felt great and understand that is achievable again as much as it might not seem like you can ever get out of this hole, you can. Find that faith in people and yourself.

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