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03rd May 2019

‘She seemed happy’ One mother on how losing her daughter to suicide led her to help other children

Melissa Carton

May marks the start of Mental Health Month, but how do we start the mental health conversation?

Ireland has one of the highest teen suicide rates in Europe but still, mental health is treated as a second thought in most regards.

Every child in Ireland will take part in a PE class but not every child will take part in a mental health class.

Sandra Kelleher knows just how important the need for mental health education is and how few avenues young people have when it comes to accessing it.

Recently, Her met with Sandra in one of the counselling rooms of her charity, Shannon’s Hopeline. The room was decorated with positive quotes, soft cushions and photographs of Sandra’s daughter, Shannon.

Sandra lost her teenage daughter to suicide in 2012.

“I lost Shannon to suicide in 2012, she was just 13 years old,” she said.

“As you can imagine it was a complete shock. I didn’t notice any signs, anything like that, so it was a complete shock.”

After tragically losing Shannon, Sandra began to research mental health statistics in Ireland and was shocked at the results.

She said:

“I began about a month, two months later, searching because I actually thought that Shannon was the youngest to die by suicide because I had never heard of anyone else dying so young.

“So I began researching and I found we (Ireland) had the second highest rate in 2012 of any EU country. I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock.”

Sandra was speared on by this information to investigate what supports are available to young people in Ireland suffering from depression and other mental health issues. She found that they were few and far between.

“I saw a lack of support out there for young people. I felt like I needed to help so that’s when I had the idea for Shannon’s Hopeline,” she said.

“We provide a low-cost counselling service for children dealing with anxiety, bullying, low self-esteem, dealing with their sexuality, anything that might lead to suicidal thoughts. Our aim is to catch them before they get to the suicidal stage.

“We also like to go around to youth clubs and schools to educate young people on their mental health. Everyone gets educated on their physical health but nothing to do with mental health and it’s the number one important thing to be looked after.”

Some schools have started to get onboard with mental health classes but not all of them do, and you have to wonder why.

School children across the country deal with stress due to bullying, low self-esteem and exam pressures, so why isn’t this taken into consideration?

Having dealt with depression during my school years I know too well how easy it is to feel like there’s no way out of those feelings, but I didn’t even know how to begin broaching the subject with anyone I knew.

“We do a lot of workshops and a lot of young kids don’t know what mental health is,” said Sandra.

Now as a parent myself, I wonder how to begin the conversation with my children about mental health and help them to understand their feelings. I asked Sandra what advice she would give to any parents thinking about getting the discussion going on mental health.

“I remember when I lost Shannon and finding out how bad suicide was in Ireland, I was confused and wondering why wasn’t any of this on the news. Why is it so well hidden? Knowing how bad it was would have given me the opportunity to start the conversation because I would often talk to my girls about worrying things on the news. I could have asked ‘have you ever thought of suicide’ or ‘what do you think suicide is’. Maybe then Shannon could have opened up to me.

“I think you can start the conversation by asking ‘what do you know about depression’ and open the conversation through that. You’d be surprised at the relief in some people who have been feeling depressed and they’re like ‘oh someone actually wants to talk about depression’. Explain to them that your mind gets sick like every other organ in your body.

“I would also advise parents to educate themselves on the topic. Look for tips online on how to approach the subject.”

Living in the local community myself I’ve noticed so many businesses holding events and taking part in sponsored runs and walks to raise funds for Shannon’s Hopeline which has no government funding.

“The community has been fantastic. They’ve helped us raise so much money, we’re not government backed or anything. They have coffee mornings, BBQs, the Women’s Mini Marathon,” Sandra explained.

“We have a comedy night coming up in this month. Shannon would have been 21 this year so it’ll be nice to celebrate, she was a bit of a comedian herself.

“She always talked about being an actress when she grew up. I think a comedy show will be a lovely way to mark her memory. I was considering having a 21st birthday party but it just didn’t feel right.”

“Kids don’t understand what’s going on in their head, there’s no language for it, that’s why it’s so important to explain mental health. We love to catch them going from 6th class into the first year of secondary school.”

Even though Shannon’s passing has led to her mother and other family members helping so many others, nothing can fill the space she left behind.

“When it comes to Shannon I still don’t know the full story. I eventually came to a place where I had to accept that I’ll never know. She seemed to have friends and be confident but she was still a sensitive person. Even after all this time, I’m still confused as to what happened to Shannon in the end.

“When I do look back I think that maybe there were one or two things that I missed. Just little hints. Her last Christmas she said to me ‘Christmas isn’t the same anymore’ which I didn’t think anything of at the time. But there weren’t any big signs. She didn’t isolate herself in her room and she seemed happy.”

Searching for signs is one of the most common after effects when we lose someone to suicide. I know having lost people close to me through suicide I’ve done this myself, but sometimes there are no signs. This is why talking to our children about mental health as early as possible is incredibly important.

Life throws many things our way and when we’re young it is particularly overwhelming and difficult to deal with.

If you feel like you would like more information on mental health or have lost a loved one through suicide you can contact Shannon’s Hopeline at 014549256 or by email at [email protected].

Sandra has also written a book about her experience which will be released soon.