Attitudes to suicide have changed
When Fr Denis Doyle was ordained in 1971 suicide was a rarity in County Wexford.
Today, at a time when the county has one of the highest suicide rates nationally, it is not uncommon for priests like Fr Doyle to be called to say Mass at funerals of several people who have taken their own lives in one year in communities.
Fr Doyle spoke passionately about the stigma of suicide at the funeral Mass of Cllr Fergie Kehoe in Wexford in April, crticising the Catholic Church for regarding suicide as a sin to be condemned. He made the point that suicide and the mindset that fosters suicidal thoughts is an illness and not a sin.
Speaking to this newspaper, Fr Doyle said: 'When I was a priest in the 1970s there was a huge stigma attached to suicide and mental health which was seen more as madness than an illness. Unfortunately it was shoved under the door and left there. People didn't want to talk about it and people were embarrassed.'
Fr Doyle knew of people who were admitted to psychiatric hospitals like St Senan's and the key was thrown away.
'Hopefully attitudes towards mental health have changed. Back then, even with our own church, people were forbidden to be buried in consecrated ground. There was no compassion shown and for me the whole illness has to be dealt with with compassion and kindness.'
Fr Doyle went to serve in Brazil in 1986 and up until that point he had only said Mass at two funerals involving people who had died by suicide in the county.
'In Brazil it was unheard of when I went there but unfortunately it began to increase out there. When I came back to Wexford in 2002, from then until now there has been a huge increase in it. In some cases people are still inclined to shove it under the carpet and many people don't want the word suicide mentioned at funerals. It does need to be spoken about and it does need to be highlighted that it is an illness.'
He said people need to hear over and over again that there is treatment for depression and that help is available.
'As long as it's shoved under the carpet it will never be dealt with. It's hugely important to realise that it has happened to other people. People have spoken about it and they have come out into the open and that says to someone that they are free to do exactly the same.'
He said family members and parents especially go through different stages when they learn of the death of a loved one by suicide.
'They suffer from great shock and total disbelief and the next thing they start asking "why didn't I notice something?" "Why didn't I see it coming?" There is a guilty feeling and it also goes back to that they don't want the neighbours to know what happened.'
Fr Doyle said dealing with death is difficult at any stage in a person's life.
'Death is a huge loss and suicide is by far the most difficult of all as there are so many questions people are left asking and there are so many questions that remain unanswered.'
He said sometimes people find comfort in prayer and return to the church.
'To me if there is no higher power then what is life all about.'
He attributes the increase in suicides in Ireland to societal pressures including a common perception people suffering from depression have that everyone else is happy and enjoying themselves.
'If I am depressed and I see everyone else enjoying themselves I find that difficult to see and I feel I need money to be happy and if I am unemployed and have no money I see myself as a failure and if my marriage breaks down I feel like a failure.'
Fr Doyle said he would love to think his sermons resonate with people, including sermons on mental health.
'Unfortunately, and I say this with a heavy heart, so much has gone on with the church over the last 15 to 20 years that people don't have the same confidence in us.'
He added: 'We are there 24/7 and everything we do is free but the one huge thing we need is weekend availability of counsellors and call lines.'
He said people take their own lives often over the weekend and yet there is no adequate service in place to offer these vulnerable people the support they need.
'We need 24/7 care as the most difficult time for all of us is between 4 p.m. on Friday's and 8 a.m. on Monday's. An acute psychiatric unit is needed in Wexford.'
Fr Doyle said priests are not trained counsellors, suggesting that training is needed to help families and people suffering from depression when there is no 24/7 service in the county.
'Unfortunately there is no programme of training for priests. It's a long time since I did training and it's not available, but thankfully a lot of priests are doing courses in counselling and for me that role is absolutely vital. It's not everyone's gift and the real danger of it is that priests take it on board too much. More training is needed in how to listen to people while ensuring we don't take it on board 100 per cent ourselves.'
On the homily he gave at Cllr Kehoe's funeral, Fr Doyle said he spoke at length with the Kehoe and Hore families about what he was going to say and they were happy for him to speak out on the issue of suicide.
'I am hugely sensitive to people and to what they would like to be said at a funeral Mass. The Kehoe and Hore families gave me the permission to do it and that is what really set me on that path. The homily is something I am very, very happy about. I have received huge compliments about it. A lot of people have come to me and said they needed to hear that said. I wanted to make the point that suicide is not an illness; it's something that people have no control over. Treatment is available if we go searching for it.'
He added: 'Some people due to the stigmas of the church still believe that people will never get into heaven for doing what they do and to me that is totally wrong. God judges it like any other illness and not as an act of suicide. I would love for the phrase "committed suicide" to be wiped off the face of the earth. Whether it's an accident, a stroke or a suicide, God does not condemn anyone. Suicide is an illness and the person who does it does not have control over their lives and it happens even against their will.'
interview by David Looby