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Finding Your Own Voice
Irish Times 17/10/2007

by Brian O'Connell

"When we found out our child was gay, we didn't have a problem with it at all," says Margaret*, "He was the one who had the problem. It was a problem that went on for five years, and made our lives a living hell."

From the age of five, Margaret's son Paul* was bullied; yet he suffered largely in silence, shutting his close friends and family out from his inner torment. Primary school was a difficult but tolerable experience, but secondary school became a daily ritual in victimisation. "Teachers helped as much as they could," says Margaret, "but bullies are hard to stop. He kept it all to himself. We only realised something was wrong when he was 15, and one day he refused to go to school. When he was 16, I confronted him on his sexuality. He didn't think we would accept that he was gay. I thought that once he had come out everything would be okay - that the worst was over for him. In reality it was only beginning."

Paul became depressed and suicidal, and, over the next few years, his parents became worried for his wellbeing. He made several attempts on his life and found it difficult to reconcile his strong Catholic faith with his sexual orientation. Accepted by his family, he found rejection in society. "I knew we had to help him, but I just didn't know how to go about it," says Margaret. "I contacted the Cork Gay Community Project, and arranged for someone there to call Paul and talk with him. That contact was vital for him - he no longer felt alone and isolated. He joined their youth group, and I started going along with him to meetings. Slowly he was getting better. Although he was still prone to massive panic attacks, the centre proved a sanctuary."

The Cork Gay Community Project is one of the longest-running centres of its type in the country. In recent years, volunteers at the centre a witnessing a worrying increase in the number of suicidal young gay men arriving on their doorstep. Project manager Dave Roche says, "Suicide awareness now forms a part of every aspect of the work at the centre, from mental and personal development, to issues of sexual health and relationships." The centre has a youth group with 50 active members. Every week young adolescents arrive, frightened, alone and in desperate need of reassurance.

Margaret's son Paul remembers his first contact with the centre, following his mother's phone call. "When I went to them first, to be honest I didn't want to be gay," says Paul, "I was upset and very bothered. I got depressed quite a lot and couldn't work or study. It was a very hard time for me. Yet the centre was an enormous resource. If i needed to speak with someone any time day or night, they would have someone out to my door. It's six years now since my first contact, and life is good. I don't care what anyone thinks. I know who I am and they can lump it if they don't like it. I certainly don't feel depressed any more, I just get on with things."

Recently in Killarney, the President, Mary McAleese, highlighted the link between suicide and sexual identity, during a keynote address to the International Association of Suicide Prevention Biennial Conference. Speaking about the experience of young gay me, the president noted, "For them, homosexuality is a discovery, not a decision and for many it is a discovery which is made against a backdrop where they have long encountered anti-gay attitudes which will do little to help them deal openly and healthily with their own sexuality."

With a growing awareness of the link between suicide and sexuality, this year the Cork Gay Community Project applied to the Department of Education for funding under the Special Projects for Youth Scheme, to enable it to appoint a youth worker to assist its work. Their funding request was turned down, despite figures showing a higher rate of suicide among young gay men, and the fact that the centre is actively tackling, largely on a voluntary basis. A spokesperson from the department stated: "The department received an application for funding under the Special Projects for Youth Scheme on behalf of the Cork Gay Community Development Co Unite Youth Project in 2007. This application was not successful due to the high level of existing commitments across the Youth Sector. For 2007, there was a very large number of new applications for funding received of which only a very small number could be funded."

Yet, outside Cork, there seems to be a growing awareness of the need to tackle suicide levels amongst lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LBGT) young people. Belong To Youth Project was set up by the Department of Education in 2003, and holds weekly group meetings for LBGT people. Last year the centre worked with 700 young people and has currently commissioned the largest ever research project to determine the levels of mental health issues among young LGBT people in Ireland. A recent study in Northern Ireland makes for stark reading, with young LGBT five times more likely to be treated for depression, two and a half times more likely to self-harm and three times more likely to attempt suicide.

"I think major efforts are being made to tackle this issue," says Belong To national development co-ordinator Michael Barron, "There is an awareness that supports need to be put in place in other areas of the country. We now have youth groups in Galway, Dundalk, Waterford, Limerick, and Kildare for instance.

"I accept the point that there needs to be a youth worker in Cork, especially for a city of its size. What we're seeing is something of an emergency and not enough is being done. But there is at least a strong awareness of the issues now, and moves in place to address it."

Back in Cork, Ken O'Mahoney, a 21 year old student, says that, without the help of voluntary support groups, he's not sure how his life would have turned out. "When I came out, I was very suicidal," he says, "I joined the youth group about three and a half years ago, when I was in sixth year in secondary school. I didn't have any gay friends at the time and it was my first experience meeting people the same age. Secondary school can be a scary place if you are gay, and being part of the youth group made things a lot easier. It helped being able to talk to people going through the same thing...In school, when comes to sex you only get the heterosexual take on things. When I joined the youth group, I got a lot more help on specific health issues and well as lots of practical information."

Ken says his mental health issues were directly related to how others would take his admission. "I felt I was disappointing my family by ruling out having grandchildren and that type of thing. I was their onlyt son, and I felt there was a responsibility on me to carry on the family name, so I got quite depressed about that."

With Ken becoming more withdrawn and agitated, someone suggested he contact the Gay Community Project. "The first time I went there I was afraid someone would see me going in or out. Immediately, though, they made me feel at ease, and now I usually pop in there once or twice a month to have a chat or for advice."

Life is good for Ken now. He's developed a large circle of friends through the centre, and is in a position to be able to help others who make the first steps to confront their sexuality. "There have been times, when I've been in my darkest moods, and were it not for the centre, God only knows what might have happened."

*Names have been changed at the interviewees' request