Ten years on, Tyrone family will remember Niamh for who she was, not how she died

A smiling Niamh McKee with her little sister Caoimhe.
A smiling Niamh McKee with her little sister Caoimhe.

As the tenth anniversary of her daughter Niamh’s tragic death by suicide approaches, Catherine McBennett wants to remember the bubbly, creative teenager for who she was and not how she died.

The Clonmore woman - who went on to found the Niamh Louise Foundation in the months following the 15 year-olds death - admits the raw grief and loss she felt back then is still as real today but that she has been able to learn to live with it by helping others in similar situations.

Catherine McBennett (Niamh's mum) and Colin Cooper from the Niamh Louise Foundation. Catherine holds a treasured photo of her daughter, who died aged just 15.

Catherine McBennett (Niamh's mum) and Colin Cooper from the Niamh Louise Foundation. Catherine holds a treasured photo of her daughter, who died aged just 15.

“It does get easier, I suppose”, Catherine told the TIMES.

“It sounds like an old cliche but you do learn to live with the pain. It does lift but you can’t do it on your own. You have to be surrounded by people who understand you and understand what you are going through.”

Niamh’s death by suicide on November 21, 2005, rocked not only her family and friends but the entire community, prompting calls for help and advice to be made available to people of all ages who were experiencing emotional problems or suicidal thoughts.

Indeed, it was the lack of any support for families bereaved through suicide which led to Catherine and her husband James to set up the charity in the aftermath of Niamh’s death.

Catherine, through the auspices of the Niamh Louise Foundation, will mark the occasion of Niamh’s anniversary with a Gala Ball in the Glenavon Hotel next weekend.

With the theme of ‘hope and recovery’, the event has been organised to remember the 15 year-old for the happy, smiling young lady she was.

“We want to encourage people and say it’s ok to smile, to dance, to be happy, if only for one night”, Catherine explains.

“We have to encourage the other bereaved families who will be there on the night to try and live with the pain.

“We want to say it is possible for you to recover. I could choose to either sit alone with the doors closed or be with people who have helped me over the years. I want to remember Niamh for who she was and not how she died.”

A decade on, Catherine accepts there have been achievements made in reducing the stigma around suicide and mental ill health, but says much more still needs to be done by government agencies as well as communities in general.

“We have 11 and 12 year-olds coming in to us for help now”, Catherine continues.

“We are working directly on the ground with people from as far away as Ballygawley to Ballycastle, but we are still only chipping away at it.

“Ten years ago no one was even talking about suicide but now I think they are ready to talk about it and about mental ill health. Governments need to talk about prevention and looking for signs, and look at using ads as hard hitting as those for road deaths.

“Ten or twelve years ago the figures for road deaths in Northern Ireland would have been 250 approximately. Since the introduction of the government advertisements, the maximum is now 50 deaths a year.

“Yet there are no advertisements which say ‘I’m thinking of suicide, I need to get help’.”

Catherine and other Niamh Louise Foundation workers point to research by the late Dr Edwin Schneidman from the USA, who coined the phrase ‘psychache’ to explain how he viewed the need for people to look at emotional ill health in just the same way they would look at a physical problem such as heart disease.

“The mind is no different”, Catherine continues. “Chemicals in our minds need looked after in the same way that we are encouraged to look after our physical health. There is still a myth out there that suicide is a choice. Even some doctors and psychologists have this idea that it’s a choice.

“But you can’t turn to someone and say, you have kidney problems so go and sort them out or control them. It is no different if someone is in emotional pain or having suicidal thoughts.”

On the issue of so-called cyberbullying and its impact on the emotional wellbeing of children and teenagers, Catherine believes tougher laws need to be put in place around the use of digital technologies.

“When I went to school, it was from 9am and I came home at 3pm”, she says. “If I was getting taunted or teased, I had all that time at home with my family to process that experience before going back the next day.

“Children nowadays don’t get a second. They are comparing themselves to idols and celebrities and they aren’t being given the chance to focus on the person they really are.”

Looking to the future of the Niamh Louise Foundation, Catherine says one of the charity’s big aims over the next year is to work in conjunction with the Family Voices Forum, a Northern Ireland wide group, to organise a significant event such as a walk to remember their loved ones.

More information about the charity can be found on their website, www.niamhlouisefoundation.com or via their Facebook page. The free Lifeline number can be contacted on 0808 808 8000.