Orkney came out as the second best place to live in the UK and the best for rural quality of life. But for lots of people it’s the opposite. Yes it is beautiful but for many people it is like a cage. For many it’s a great place to grow up; you can run around on Hoy to your heart's content and you rarely fear crime. However, at a certain point in adolescence you can hit a wall. As a young person it can be a very difficult place to grow up in and find acceptance - we have been reminded of this both often and recently.
Over the last two years of my paramedic training I have seen several suicide victims and countless more who have made attempts. My care has to include both the patient themselves but equally the family and friends they leave behind. I have seen the devastation it leaves in it’s wake and it includes that on the mental health of individuals in the emergency services. However, it’s not my job that initially woke me up to the prevalence of suicide. At least 4 young people I know have taken their own life back in Orkney but there are no doubt more I knew more distantly. This is a figure that shocks my “South” friends and rightly so. The numbers are not only high, but the effect these tragedies have on the community is magnified because of the nature of small, rural communities. Everybody knows them and their family, even if it’s vague, and there is this sense of community grieving. However, this community spirit can work against people too.
There is has always been a stigma around being different or vulnerable in Orkney. Everybody knows your business and you tend to be known for the scandals rather than the good work you’ve done. It is the same in all small communities be it rural, religious or racial communities. The Scottish Suicide Information Database report from 2016 shows what we already know, that Orkney, the Highlands and Shetland in particular have the highest rates outside of Glasgow but most importantly these were considered “preventable”.
Of those I knew who took their own lives, more often than not it was a complete surprise. Nobody expected it. There is this reluctance to ask for help and a large part of it probably stems from a fear of being judged. Often these people have felt like they would never be accepted for example, it’s only in the last few years young people have felt like they can come out as gay and often they have to move south first. Or even just the idea of being depressed is enough to feel shameful and alcoholism often is Orcadians way of showing it. Underage drinking in Orkney is rife and everyone turns a blind eye at Barn Dances. However, this culture can be toxic to those who stay as even when you grow up there can feel like little else to do in Orkney but drink.
I personally had a good upbringing on Orkney but I was very aware of the effect it has on others. It’s still a beautiful place with plenty of good points but both experience and statistics show that there is a problem not just in Orkney, but all small communities. There needs to be a change in attitude and all too often this seems to come over time waiting generations or for the government. Sometimes something needs to be done sooner and young people have to take things into their own hands to prevent another tradgedy. Talk to be people. Break the chain and be vulnerable. Even if you’re not in Orkney please talk. Reach out for help and take time for yourself. You’ll be surprised to find that we’ve all been there.