A familiar figure around Castlebar, where he has ran a drop-in centre for over 10 years, Westport man Joe McGuire will always have time to listen and have a chat.

"Easier to get drugs in Mayo than a taxi home"

IT is easier to get drugs in every town and village in Mayo than it is to get a taxi.

Stark words from a mental health and suicide awareness advocate who has seen the affects drugs and alcohol are having on lives every day of the year.

After working voluntarily for the last 12 years in the sector, Joe McGuire is retiring at Christmas.

He can look back with some satisfaction on the number of people he helped at times of mental health crisis when they turned to the drop-in centres he established under what now operates as the Mayo Addiction and Suicide Awareness (MAASA) organisation.

Some 2,400 people have passed through the doors over the past 11 years seeking help. Of those, there were 22/23 people who were contemplating suicide, he said.

As Joe retires, help will still be available in Castlebar - the Samaritans are moving to the county town and will be in operation by the end of the year.

The Liscarney, Westport, man's interest in suicide awareness goes back 20 years, and in 2003 he was the first person in Ireland to raise money for awareness, for the Irish Association of Suicidology.

As secretary of the Mayo Wheelers, he organised the first Great Sheffrey Challenge, which raised money for various charities over a few years.

In 2010 Joe turned his attention full-time to suicide awareness and was the first person to put up a stand at a festival to highlight the issue, at the salmon festival in Ballina.

Many readers will remember the poster campaign Joe ran in pubs and businesses where they displayed helpline numbers for people seeking helping with mental health issues. Printing 50,000 at a time, Joe personally delivered 250,000 of them to businesses.

The first drop-in centre opened in Castlebar, at Ellison Street, in 2011. Eight years ago the centre moved to Richard Street in the town, where it is still operational, with an associated charity shop, and last year, MAASA opened a new drop-in centre in Ballina to serve north Mayo.

Some 2,400 people have passed through the doors and been given help over the last 11 years.

Their issues are wide-ranging, from depression to addiction, marriage problems, business debt, drug debt, and rural isolation.

Medication, as Joe points out, is not the answer to some of these problems. People sometimes just need someone to talk to.

Joe is mindful of the people who have assisted him along the way, including the various members of the gardaí and the professionals who often offered their services free of charge, and all those who have donated to the charity.

"I want to say a sincere thank you to them all. Every bit of support made a difference to someone's life."

Lots of the people Joe has helped over the years have stayed in touch with him. And even when he retires, his phone will always be available for a chat, or if clubs or organisations would like him to speak with their members.

Joe is critical of the mental health services in this country where, he says, there is too much money being squandered at the top and not enough investment at grassroots level.

"If you go looking for help, the people at the top are not there to be found," he says.

He cited one example of a young girl who went looking for help and being given an appointment - nine weeks later.

"I had her sorted in 15 minutes with one phone call," he recalled. "That is the difference between life and death. She needed and asked for help and she needed it now, not in nine weeks' time.

"Why is the system like that? The doors to the system need to be open more for people seeking help."

Pieta, he said, had visited 600 families last year who were bereaved by suicide. "In this day and age that is disgraceful. There wasn't 600 people killed on the roads, and if there was there would be uproar."

Unfortunately, he predicts that matters may get worse.

"There is huge pressure on people with housing and the cost of living.

"But drugs are the biggest problem facing society. It is easier to get drugs in every town and village in Mayo than it is to get a taxi. And everyone just turns a blind eye to it.

"People need to wake up to it. It is one of the biggest problems that is down the line for our youngsters."

Another startling fact Joe highlighted is the fact that Ireland has the highest female suicide rate in Europe. Not many people know that, he said, and society doesn't seem to talk about women who die by suicide.

Women of all ages are affected. The oldest lady Joe knew of personally was 71.

Up to 80% of the people availing of MAASA services are female.

Come Christmas, Joe will have more time to spend with wife Bernadette, and there are some travel plans in there for the couple.

You'll be hearing from him though about a fundraiser or two to support the leukaemia treatment services at University Hospital Galway.