The coronavirus pandemic has led to an increase in people feeling suicidal in Northern Ireland, Stormont’s mental health champion has warned.
rofessor Siobhan O’Neill said that losing loved ones to the virus and the impact of restrictions was causing people to feel hopeless.
She was speaking after it emerged over 25,000 people called Northern Ireland’s suicide prevention service Lifeline during 2019/20.
A total of 25,638 people called the crisis line in the 12 months to last April, an increase of over 2,000 from 23,555 in 2018/19.
In 2019/20, 5,255 calls were also made to Lifeline by third parties on behalf of an individual, down from 5,732 the previous year.
They are generally made by someone concerned about a person’s mental health, such as a GP or the emergency services.
The highest number of calls last year came from the North Belfast Assembly constituency, with 2,493 people seeking help. This was followed by West Belfast on 2,257 and South Belfast on 2,144.
Lagan Valley had the lowest number of calls with 843, South Antrim had 872 and Fermanagh and South Tyrone had 956 calls.
The figures were released by Health Minister Robin Swann after an Assembly question from Sinn Fein MLA Orlaithi Flynn.
Lifeline is a dedicated crisis response helpline service for people who are experiencing distress or despair.
Trained counsellors are available 24 hours a day and are experienced in working with trauma, suicide, self-harm, abuse, depression and anxiety. The service is funded by the Department of Health.
Professor O’Neill said crisis helplines in Northern Ireland had experienced a further increase in calls as a result of the pandemic.
She said it was “great that people are reaching out for help”.
“It’s really important that Lifeline’s there and people know that they can call. This is a sign that many are reaching out, I would encourage more people to reach out for help and support, especially since face to face support had been reduced as a result of the pandemic. Helplines are one of the remaining ways people can ask for help,” the interim mental health champion said.
Professor O’Neill admitted the pandemic was taking a toll on mental health.
“We know that there’s more people struggling as a result of the pandemic and we know as the pandemic has progressed more and more people are feeling suicidal as a result of what’s happening,” she said.
“It’s important that we all adhere to the restrictions because one of the things that does impact on mental health is whenever people lose someone to Covid or whenever there’s outbreaks in the community.”
Ms Flynn said she was concerned that some areas had higher rates of calls than others.
“The Lifeline crisis service plays a vital role in reaching out and supporting those in emotional crisis. Suicide prevention crisis services are clearly in considerable demand,” the West Belfast MLA said.
“It is clear that areas of high deprivation would have higher rates of calls, but I am concerned that some constituencies have a lower number of callers than others, for what should be an easily accessible service, that is free and open 24 hours every day.”
Anyone in distress can contact Lifeline on 0808 808 8000.