An English clergyman who is based in Co Tyrone took to the roads recently on a poignant cycle trip.
Not only was the Reverend Doctor Robin Stockitt travelling across over 240 miles in just three days, but he was journeying between Church of Ireland cathedrals in Londonderry, Raphoe, Enniskillen, Clogher, Armagh, Dromore, Lisburn and Belfast.
The epic journey for the Rector of St James, Donagheady, was a mission to raise much needed cash for refurbishments at his local parish hall, as well as awareness and money for suicide awareness charity Cycle Against Suicide.
It was the clergyman’s own personal experiences that led him to support a suicide charity during his cycle.
Tragically three decades ago, Robin, 60, lost his mother to suicide. It is something that has taken him a long time to come to terms with.
He explained: “This year is the 30th anniversary of my mother’s suicide and I thought it would be nice to mark it in some way. I wanted to do something special to honour her and it’s also to do something useful for the community.
“The death of my mother is something that has never left me, but I’ve had to work hard to process what happened and why it happened and to deal with my own feelings of sadness.
“Even now after 30 years there are occasions when I am overwhelmed with sadness about it. That sense of loss has never left me but I think it has been an impetus as well.
“My mum’s death was one of the reasons why I changed my career from being a schoolteacher to being a minister. I was a schoolteacher for 17 years in England and Nigeria, and then in my late 30s I changed course completely and became a Church of England minister.”
As well as his personal experiences, Robin, who was born in Johannesburg and grew up in Surrey, was moved to take action for Cycle Against Suicide after hearing some staggering figures about the rates in Northern Ireland.
He said: “It was reported recently that the number of suicides registered in Northern Ireland last year was 318, the highest number on record.
“More than 7,500 people have taken their own lives in Northern Ireland since records began in 1970, this is the highest suicide rate in the UK at 16.5 people per 100,000.
“This means that in the 18 years since the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, more people have died through suicide than were killed in the 30 years of the Troubles.”
And while absolutely shocking to the Reverend, Robin said that in his experience at St James, Donagheady, it’s a problem that affects people from all walks of life and all areas.
“There is one man in my parish who lost four of his brothers successively to suicide. Over the years I’ve heard so many stories from people, it’s quite widespread and I found that even moreso is the incidences of depression”, he said. Some have told me how they have been taking anti-depressants for many years. So I find sometimes that underneath the surface of community and good craic is a real cloak of sadness, an unspoken sadness that people don’t often talk about.
“I try to help that by speaking openly on my parish visits about my feelings on the death of my mother and I’ve been told that it’s certainly been a bridge to help others to open up as well.”
A former teacher, Robin said that while his faith in God helped him through the tough times, similarly his mother’s death made him question what he believed.
He explained: “I came to faith at 18 when I was at university. It (my faith) has always been quite strong, but I think the suicide of my mother did shake that and it caused me to question things and do some internal soul searching.
“I never saw suicide as the unforgivable sin, I see it more as a cancer of the mind. If you ask me how I feel that God views suicide, I would say that I that I think He views it as compassionately and tenderly as he views all of us.
“The thing about having faith is that often you ask yourself some questions about why does such and such happen, or why do good things happen to bad people, why does this happen to me in my life, and I’ve found that I have had to live with unanswered questions, and to live with a sense of mystery.
“And despite that ‘not knowing’, I’ve always sensed that there is great presence supporting me, and that’s what keeps me going, even though I may not have any answers to offer many people.”
Robin felt that tackling the once taboo subject of suicide in rural Northern Ireland would help others to speak openly about their experiences as he has.
“One of the things I was hoping to do was to make this event about mental health and suicide without any sense of shame or taboo. I’m quite comfortable talking about my own experience, which I hope will encourage others to speak up as well.”
Joined on the fundraising journey by 13 other cyclists, Robin and the team have raised over £7,000 for the parish hall and suicide awareness charity.
Despite the mammoth task, Robin was a novice to cycling, having only been biking across Northern Ireland for just over a year.
“A friend of mine in Donemana introduced me to a road biking and I bought myself a decent bike” he said. “Next minute there I was with a group of men who did this regularly. So I started going out with them and I got hooked on cycling. Then I thought about how I could use my new-found passion and I decided I would like to do something to raise awareness about mental health issues.
“The whole journey was great because the group were mainly in their late 20s, and so the younger boys were supporting the older boys and cajoled us and supported us and carried us along.
“Even when I was completely exhausted they would say, ‘you can do it’.
“The group who cycled came from different traditions; in terms of the Christian faith there were Presbyterians, Catholics and Church of Ireland all together and there was a great sense of camaraderie, a load of banter, and lots of teasing, but we all believed in the project and helped one another, we trained for nine months for it, about twice a week from last September or October until the weekend before.
“All the training helped to forge friendships and to build a sense of trust between us.”