Supporting communities after a suicide22, March 2011 | By: brendan64 | 4 Comments »
Co-founder of the Níamh Louise Foundation, James McBennett, is to speak at Coalisland Holy Family Church tomorrow evening. Here he talks about the charity’s message, its breaking of social taboos and the pressures of living through grief so publicly.
JAMES McBennett and his family were rocked by the death of his 15-year-old step-daughter Niamh McKee.
Her sudden death in November 2005 was a seismic shock to the Clonmore community and the surrounding areas.
Not only was her life cut so heartbreakingly short, but she died through suicide.
Three months later, Mr McBennett and his wife Catherine sat at their kitchen table, still feeling they had nowhere to turn with their grief.
Mr McBennett, 45, says, “There were no mechanisms in place and we found that no one could tell us the answers and, round the kitchen table we thought, well, this can’t happen.”
They set about creating the Níamh Louise Foundation, which has fast become the beacon of hope for many families affected by suicide in the Tyrone area.
The Coalisland area has experienced a rash of suicides in recent years. Mr McBennett hopes tomorrow’s talk will highlight the support mechanisms provided by the Níamh Louise Foundation.
But he stresses, “It is not that it is more prominent than any other area. Coalisland is no worse or better than any other area but it just seems that in this last while there have been more. There are a lot of economic and social problems in every town and village.
“But the man who can tell you the answer about why there are so many suicides isn’t here, because they went through it themselves.”
The Foundation gathered pace through 2006 after a ceremony for families in the Armagh City Hotel.
A branch was opened in Dungannon that year, followed later by a further two Tyrone bases, in Coalisland and Cookstown.
The Foundation, now in its fifth year, employs five full-time staff members and is supported by 25 volunteers in its work.
Mr McBennett spoke of the charity’s aim to tackle three areas associated with suicide: “Prevention” through raising awareness, “intervention” for those at high risk of self harm, and “postvention” to help families and friends cope with their loss.
He says, “The charity bridges the gap between people and professionals. We try to give support to people when it is needed and try to de-stigmatise the whole issue of self harm.
“People don’t take their lives Monday to Friday, nine to five. We are there to help people when they need it.”
“We have also kept the whole thing very cross-community. We have had people collecting for us from around bonfires to young people in Ógra Shinn Féin, and in that we have gained our stripes.
“Suicide crosses all barriers, whether it is age, sexual orientation or, in this case, religion.”
Mr McBennett says he and his wife were unsure whether the people of Tyrone would be welcoming to their charity breaking the social taboo of suicide.
He says, “We have been very surprised from the point of view that it is a highly emotive and stigmatised subject. We didn’t know if people would support it or shy away from it and keep it stigmatised.
“People even from years ago have come forward and said that someone they have known died from suicide.”
In co-founding the charity, Mr McBennett and his wife have reached out in an area of great personal grief and torment.
They are subjected to intense media pressure in an subject which many affected families fear to talk about.
Do they ever feel like constantly re-living and recalling their grief is just too much?
Mr McBennett says the charity has helped them to death with their daughter’s passing.
He says, “We are always very careful of reporters because of this sensationalising of suicide can be harmful. It is people’s lives we are dealing with here.
“Yes there’s good times and there’s bad times and you say to yourself, ‘God, why did we get into this?’ But when you see the joy in some, then that makes it all worthwhile.
“If the charity only saves one person, then we have achieved what we have set out to do.
“In a round about way, by helping other people, we have been helping ourselves.”
The Foundation is now working with the University of Ulster in Magee to create a written account of 20 families’ experiences of life after a suicide.
The emotional accounts will help to hone the charity’s work by comparing the experiences of urban and rural areas.
For Mr McBennett, the focus remains on the great work of the charity.
He says, “Even though it started around our kitchen table, it is not our charity anymore. It has got so much bigger than that and it would not be fair for us to take the limelight.”
James McBennett will be speaking about the Níamh Louise Foundation on Wednesday March 23 at 7.30pm in the Holy Family Church as part of the parish’s Lenten programme.