Volunteers patrol the riverbanks in search of those about to take their own lives
It’s a bitterly cold, wet, stormy Friday night in Limerick city, and there’s a high tide on the River Shannon.
Members of Limerick Suicide Watch (LSW) have taken up patrol along the riverbank, wearing their distinctive orange reflective clothing.
They are watching out for people showing signs they may be about to take their own life.
The group has made more than 200 interventions since it formed in 2016 in response to a surge in suicides at the river.
“It’s important that, if someone is that low, at the river, contemplating ending their life, that they know there is support, and they know we are there to support them and listen to them,” says Sean Lyons (26), one of the younger volunteers.
The web developer from Kilmore, Co Clare joined the group five months ago because he “wanted to do something” in response to the rise in suicides locally. Already he has helped save lives through both “physical” and “verbal” interventions.
“It’s a shame there is a need for it, but there is a need for it,” he says.
“You will have interventions where you are physically holding someone. The physical ones can be a bit more demanding.”
For members of the group, “your first one will always stick in your memory”, he continues.
“Your heart is in your mouth and you’re very cautious of what you say. How you react is really going to be important to this person and may determine what happens.”
LSW now has almost 80 volunteers, from all different backgrounds aged from their mid-20s to their 60s, who patrol the riverbank, four nights a week.
Each volunteer receives training in dealing with distressed persons. They communicate through a walkie-talkie system, and are equipped with throw-bags that can reach a person 25m away.
Each volunteer also wears a personal flotation device on patrol in the event they go into the water during an intervention.
This is rare but it has happened.
As the patrol continues along the quayside, a warning goes out on the volunteers’ radios for vigilance of “high cross winds, especially while crossing over bridges”.
The volunteers say they have a close relationship with taxi drivers who often swing into action at no cost and ferry them to someone in immediate distress.
Sean Lyons has learned from nights on patrol that suicide “doesn’t discriminate”.
The group has come across “young, old, all from different backgrounds” and their reasons for being there vary considerably.
“It can be circumstances at home, financial worries, child custody battles, domestic abuse.” Another reason is “loneliness”.
Lyons says he has met people who “genuinely don’t have anyone else, and who just feel like they are completely alone”.
He has also intervened on a few occasions with third-level students who have been “stressed” about studies or “they might be away from home, and don’t have a family support”.
Ciara McInerney, a 29-year old architect from Limerick city, says she became a volunteer after witnessing the Coast Guard rescue helicopter combing the river for bodies on numerous occasions.
When she comes across a person in distress, it’s best “to acknowledge what they’re feeling, and not to dance around that”.
“I think a lot of people, when they think of Limerick city and the Shannon river, more so than the River Lee in Cork, associate it with suicide.
“It’s a sad fact, and we are trying to do something about that.”
Jason Begley, an operations manager from Co Clare, who has been a volunteer for the past two years, says the work can be “hugely rewarding” yet “very difficult” at other times.
“Our main priority is to make sure the person goes home safe to their family, to their kids, to their wives, to their parents,” says the 41-year old father of two from Shannon.
“Unfortunately, there will be situations where somebody takes their own life, and it can take its toll. But, due to the support that’s available here, there’s no situation where you’ll be left alone.”
Shortly after 11pm, teas and coffees donated by the Limerick Strand hotel are passed around, along with donuts from Clarina Scouts and Beavers.
Limerick had twice the national average suicide rate between 2014 and 2016 at 23.7 per 100,000 of population
Figures published by the Central Statistics Office show that Limerick had twice the national average suicide rate between 2014 and 2016 at 23.7 per 100,000 of population. This compared with 6.7 per 100,000 in Dublin city and 2.1 per 100,000 in Waterford.
Colm O’Byrne, LSW chairman, says he is “not naive” to think they have a magic bullet, but he firmly believes the group is “making a difference”.
LSW has attracted interest from other parts of the country and has agreed to help train others who wish to launch similar groups in Cork and Galway.
O’Byrne says they are also in talks with Limerick City and County Council about seeking a permanent base nearer the river. They are also seeking to be able to supply local taxi drivers with throw-bags as a further proactive measure.
LSW, a registered charity which requires €40,000 a year to keep operating, does not receive Government funding and relies solely on donations. It was recently selected as the Shannon Group’s staff charity of the year for 2019, along with the Irish Cancer Society.
O’Byrne says the key to winning the battle against suicide is “talking”, “removing stigma”, and “raising awareness”.
“We wear bright colours so everyone sees us. We are not hiding in the corners about it. We are very open and very visible. We know the dark corners to check in and we know where to look, but we want people to see us, and we want people to ask us why we are we here.”
If you have been affected by any details in this report, you can contact the following support services:
Samaritans, dial 116123 /send an SMS text message to 087-2609090 / email email@example.com Pieta House 1800247247 / text ‘HELP’ to 51444 / email firstname.lastname@example.org. Aware 1800 80 48 48. Visit yourmentalhealth.ie