I grew up just off Belfast’s Murder Mile, a stretch so called because of the number of casualties there during the Troubles, the decades-long conflict over the status of Northern Ireland. The wider area around the Mile was known as the Murder Triangle for the same reason. Just streets away from my family’s house, it wasn’t uncommon for loyalist paramilitaries to drive around, single out a target, and pull the trigger.
The Good Friday Agreement, a key part of the peace process that ended the Troubles, was signed when I was 8 years old. But even the bloodshed of my childhood hadn’t left me prepared for the news, a decade after peace began, that my friend Jonny had killed himself at age 17. My friend Mick delivered the news—he’d heard from Jonny’s stepfather that his body had been discovered on the grounds of the mental institution where he’d been staying after a previous suicide attempt.
I don’t remember much of what happened Mick told me, other than walking upstairs, kicking something in the bathroom, and cursing Jonny for dying.
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Jonny, Mick, and I were members of the generation nicknamed the Ceasefire Babies—those of us too young to remember the worst of the terror. We were the Good Friday Agreement generation, spared from the horrors of war. But still, the aftereffects of those horrors seemed to follow us.
The first time Jonny tried to kill himself, the ambulance parked just beyond his front door, as if the paramedics were mindful of drawing attention to the house. Despite the fact that the local papers brought news of suicides every week, using words like “epidemic,” there was still an element of Catholic shame about it all. When they carted him off to hospital to pump the tablets out of his stomach, his mother didn’t go with him.
Jonny was my best friend for years. We matched in several ways: dark hair, dark eyes, and glasses. People mistook us for siblings. There were five of us: me, Jonny, Jonny’s brother Jimmy, Mick, and Tanya, a sweet-natured English girl. But, as childhood friends do, we grew apart. The last I’d heard of Jonny, until Mick knocked on my door, was that he had been taken to the mental-health hospital.
I lived in the street for three more years after that. When I left, his house had been boarded up, the windows barricaded with sheets of rusted metal.
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When someone dies by suicide, they leave behind questions. Attend a wake or a funeral in such circumstances and you’ll hear them, posed by tortured family members: Why did she do it? Why didn’t he talk to me? Why didn’t she say goodbye?
Those were not the sort of questions that Mike Tomlinson, a professor of sociology at Queen’s University Belfast, could answer. What he could do, though, was talk about the broader picture. “Essentially, the story since 1998, which just so happens to be the [year of the] peace agreement, is that our suicide rate almost doubles in the space of 10 years.” In the 32-year gap from 1965 (four years before the Troubles began) to 1997, 3,983 deaths by suicide were recorded. In the 16 years after the 1998 peace agreement, through the end of 2014, 3,709 people died by suicide—roughly the same number over half the amount of time. Over the last few years, Tomlinson’s research has mainly focused on one question—why?
“Now, that trend [the almost doubling of the suicide rate since 1998] is wholly out of line with what happens everywhere else,” says Tomlinson. He describes a presentation he gave at Stormont, the parliament buildings of Northern Ireland, that includes graphs of the trends in suicide in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. “Of all the presentations I’ve done in my career,” he says, “there’s an audible gasp from the audience every time I’ve done that [one].”
Researchers caution that some suicides that took place in the period before 1998 may not have been recorded as such, due to religious norms and relatives’ shame. Yet during his research, Tomlinson discovered that of all suicides registered in Northern Ireland between 1965 and 2012 (7,271 in total), 45 percent were recorded from 1998 onwards. It’s the oddest of anomalies: If the official statistics can be taken at face value, more people are killing themselves in peacetime than in war.
In a paper published in 2013, Tomlinson wrote: “Since 1998 the suicide rate in Northern Ireland has almost doubled, following a decade during which the rate declined from a low level of 10 per 100,000 of the population to 8.6.” The overall rate is now 16.25 per 100,000—25.24 per 100,000 men and 7.58 per 100,000 women (2012 figures based on three-year rolling averages). In global terms, this places Northern Ireland in the top quarter of the international table of suicide rates.
Tomlinson identified adults whose childhoods had coincided with the worst period of Troubles-related violence (from 1970 to 1977) as the age group that experienced the most rapid rise in suicides in the decade after 1998. It seems obvious that this group, who’d seen the worst of the Troubles, would be affected. But what about the teenagers like Jonny, the Ceasefire Babies?
The Troubles’ survivors would taunt us: How much had we really seen, compared to them? Yet of the 3,709 people who lost their lives to suicide between 1999 and 2014, 676 of them—nearly a fifth—were younger than 25.
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Siobhan O’Neill, who grew up in the small Faughan Valley village of Claudy, never witnessed the carnage of the Troubles directly. But she saw its effects on people’s everyday lives. She saw it in the fear of her parents when she told them, at age 11, that she wanted to attend secondary school in nearby Derry City, rather than in the village. Derry, like Belfast, was a hotspot for murder and bombings.
It was confirmation of what many had long suspected. Of the sample interviewed for the study, just 3.8 percent of those who’d never experienced a traumatic event had seriously considered suicide. If they’d experienced a non-conflict-related traumatic event (like a car crash, for example, or a loved one dying from cancer), that number jumped to 10.5 percent. And for those who’d experienced conflict-related traumatic events, the number increased further still, to 14.2 percent.
What shocked O’Neill even more was her discovery that, out of the 28 countries that participated in the World Mental Health Survey Initiative—including Israel and Lebanon, places with ongoing, bloody conflicts—Northern Ireland was the one whose population had the highest rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Some 39 percent of Northern Ireland’s population, she says, have experienced a traumatic event related to the conflict. While suicide rates among the middle-aged could, in part, be explained by the trauma of the Troubles, what could account for the death of young people who’d never seen the war?
There is no single common factor in suicides among young people, according to O’Neill. Many things can be involved: educational underachievement, poverty, poor parenting. But the Ceasefire Babies are also dealing with the added stress of the conflict—even though most of them never witnessed it directly.
“When one person sees something awful, when one person is traumatized, it will affect how they relate to everybody else, including how they relate to their children, their grandchildren,” says O’Neill. “People who’ve been affected by the Troubles live in areas where there’s high rates of crime and poverty. When you’re a child growing up in poverty, being parented by people who’ve been traumatized and everyone around you has been traumatized, you are going to be affected by that, even if you’ve never seen anything. Even if they never tell you the stories.”
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At the University of Haifa in Israel, students can take a course called “Memory of the Holocaust: Psychological Aspects.” Taught by the professor Hadas Wiseman, it outlines how the traumatic experiences of Holocaust survivors have been passed down to their children and grandchildren, a phenomenon known as “intergenerational transmission of trauma.”
Much research has been published on the subject. In 1980, a husband-and-wife team, Stuart and Perihan Aral Rosenthal, presented their research in the American Journal of Psychotherapy. Titled “Holocaust Effect in the Third Generation: Child of Another Time,” it examined how the trauma of Holocaust survivors had traveled down the generations. It should have been a red flag to governments and policy makers across the globe: The effects of war did not stop with the murdered, the injured, and the traumatized.
In 2012, another study that looked at the Holocaust, published by researchers at the University of Haifa, confirmed what many academics had argued for years: that trauma survivors pass their behaviors down to their children. A report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz said: “Survivor parents were perceived by some second-generation children as being inaccessible, cold, and distant. And even though these second-generation participants described their parents’ inaccessibility as being problematic, some of them were perceived by their own children as being remote and cold.”
Researchers, including Professor Rachel Yehuda at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, are exploring how the effects of trauma and stress could be passed down to offspring biologically. Epigenetic changes—alteration of genes in terms of their activity, rather than their DNA sequence—can be inherited, and it’s thought these may explain how intergenerational transmission of trauma occurs. In August 2015, Yehuda and colleagues published a study of Holocaust survivors that showed, for the first time in humans, that parental trauma experienced before conception can cause epigenetic changes in both parent and child.
These findings are among the latest in an increasing body of research showing that intergenerational transmission of trauma is not just a sociological or psychological problem, but also a biological one. Could this heritable aspect of trauma explain why so many young people in Northern Ireland, like Jonny, are taking their lives? As the sociologist Mike Tomlinson pointed out to me during an interview, the problem with answering that question is a lack of data. Who are these young people? What are their backgrounds? Where are they from?
Tomlinson recounted a time he was interviewed on the BBC World Service about his research. At the end of the interview, a fellow interviewee from the U.S. asked him, “Where is the evidence from other countries?” The problem is, there’s very little. In war, the ruling government usually collapses—and with it any form of meaningful record-keeping. Northern Ireland was unique: the Troubles were an internal conflict throughout which the state remained strong, even when the mainland was being bombed. To borrow a scientific term, it’s the best dataset we have to prove that the problems faced in a war-torn country do not end with the arrival of peace.
Yet the experiences of Northern Irish families in the post-conflict era are playing out in other countries, even if the patterns aren’t being recognized. After one presentation at an international conference where he talked about Northern Ireland’s soaring suicide rates, Tomlinson was surrounded by people from different countries affected by conflict. They were seeing exactly the same thing, they told him. “But again,” he says, “it was anecdotal, it wasn’t well-documented.”
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The Sunflower is a tiny little pub perched on a corner in an alleyway between the edge of north Belfast and the city center, in the province of Ulster. With bright green paintwork, it’s known for attracting a genteel crowd of writers, journalists, poets, and musicians, a smattering of post-conflict hipsters who wear tight jeans and tweed jackets and Converse. There are poetry readings and concerts by local indie bands in a smallish room upstairs. A sign outside on the wall says: “No Topless Sunbathing—Ulster Has Suffered Enough.” For tourists, it’s an introduction to the natives’ quirky black humor, our way of dealing with all that’s happened.
For those of us who grew up in north Belfast and know the area, the sign calls to mind the suffering experienced on those very streets when a loyalist murder gang, the Shankill Butchers, drove around looking for Catholic victims to torture and kill. If I’d been born a decade earlier, I wouldn’t have dared to venture down those streets, never mind drink there. Now, it’s safe.
It was there that I went, one Thursday afternoon, to meet Jonny.
We never figured out why Jonny’s stepfather had told Mick that Jonny was dead. Now he was sitting in front of me, toned and muscular, with his dark hair swept over his eyes, the glasses replaced by contact lenses. We’d all grown up together—me, him, Mick, Tanya, Jimmy—but there was so much he’d kept hidden from us. Between arguments with his stepfather and mother, things had been tough at home. He'd had depression for a long time.
After he was taken to the mental-health facility, several more suicide attempts followed. “I was always very opportunistic—it was never planned out,” he says. “If I saw an opportunity, I took it.” Since then, though, his life has changed. With the help of medication to keep him stabilized, he has his own flat, and is going back to school.
I was grateful to be there, drinking with Jonny instead of visiting his grave. But the problem hasn’t gone away, and there are plenty more friends and acquaintances who never made it into adulthood. If I count their names on my fingers, I run out of digits. The tragic irony of life in Northern Ireland today is that peace seems to have claimed more lives than war ever did.