Jamie Hubley, Akash Wadwha, Daron Richardson, Jack Windeler, Nadia Kajouji, Sara Carlin, Thomas Trapper—these are just some of the names, from Ontario alone, of teenagers who have taken their own life in the past three years. They are used not to glamorize suicide but to illustrate its frequency and proximity.
In Canada, the most recent figures available through Statistics Canada indicate that 3,705 citizens took their own lives in 2008. According to the Georgia-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, someone in the United States dies by suicide every 15 minutes. Most of the intentionally self-inflicted deaths in North America go unnoticed; there is nothing glamorous about it. It’s scary. But it’s also preventable much of the time. To this end, the myths surrounding mental health issues need to be explored.
Alison Burnett, director of the Health and Counselling Centre at UTM, aims to open up a dialogue: “We’re continually trying to engage students in at least conversation about mental health issues, suicide, and other issues, because [they are] significant and have a tremendous impact on people.”
One aspect frequently lost in the shock of suicide cases is the vast number of people who contemplate it. One in seven Canadians have seriously considered suicide. Every day there are, on average, two hospitalizations for suicide attempts in Peel. In many cases, there is no explicit warning sign until it’s too late. Some people go to great lengths to minimize or hide personal struggles. To avoid this, we need to raise awareness and focus on the stigma associated with mental illness.
“Creating an environment where people feel comfortable and safe in telling somebody is probably one of the most important and helpful things people can do,” says Burnett. “Even things like using appropriate language and avoiding stigmatizing phrases[…]will go a long way in eliminating the stigma that surrounds mental health issues.”
One student pointed out, “If you have a cold or a headache, you don’t feel ashamed and embarrassed. So why do we get so worked up about a different kind of health?”
Suicide transcends age, race, gender, sexual orientation, financial means and location; look to people like hockey players Wade Belak and Rick Rypien, fashion icon Alexander McQueen, or farther back to eminent women like Marilyn Monroe or Sylvia Plath. Everyone struggles internally, and many let the stigma suppress the expression of that struggle.
In my case, I was afraid to admit to depression and anxiety. What would others think of me if they knew? It seemed like a weakness, something that did not align with my flawed self-perception as “strong and masculine”—even though death by suicide is three times more common in males than in females, while suicide attempts are more common in females. To cope, I drank and smoked more. Things got worse. It became more important to hide everything than to seek help. The stress of secrecy brought on suicidal thoughts. I made a plan… I needed help.
It’s everywhere. The number of resources and aids available to anyone struggling with mental health is staggering. One component of that aid is the Peer Health Education program and its teams, overseen by Chad Jankowski. As the health education coordinator, he is responsible for promoting healthy living on both the physical and mental levels.
“Until we can talk directly and openly about it, mental illness is going to be problematic. A lot of people who have not experienced a challenge around mental health don’t identify with the issue,” says Jankowski.
A number of campaigns have been implemented to raise awareness and dispel myths, such as the Green Ribbon and the reTHINK mental health campaigns. One such initiative is a certification program known as safeTALK.
“SafeTALK is part of U of T’s commitment to creating a community safer from suicide,” Jankowski explains. “There are about thirty staff on this campus who have taken a two-day training course in suicide intervention.”
These people are “mental health first-aiders”—people who work with students that have suicidal thoughts and help them until they can meet with counsellors or other specialists.
“Operating below that is a much larger base of people who are trained in safeTALK, which is about suicide alertness,” continues Jankowski. “They are trained to be alert to the possibility that thoughts of suicide may be present.” Their training allows them to link the sufferer with someone on campus who can help.
The demands of daily life, work, and school may only increase the stress. Fred Besik, a fourth-year English and human geography major and a member of the Peer Health Educators Sexual Health and Relationships team, understands the pressure on students.
“In the university context, the pressure of excelling, transitioning from high school to university, or even coming to Canada as an international student and feeling lost and alone can all contribute to stress and depression,” he says.
“Recognizing that depression is not something to be ashamed about, and that it is something that many people go through, as well as creating awareness of the resources we have both here and off-campus, are important steps to combatting stigma.”
It’s that awareness that eludes many people going through difficult times. I was completely ignorant of how much help was available on campus. It may be the case that Nadia, Jack, and the others who did not make it to university were unaware of the help available to them.
Making that message clear may simply be a matter of time. “Time is a huge component. When you’re talking about creating a shift in culture (because that’s what were talking about), you need time for people to talk directly and openly about it,” says Jankowski.
Nevertheless, some progress has been made. Media coverage has helped to foster dialogue, regardless of those who see it as glamorizing suicide cases. “I remember, in the not-too-distant past, that when somebody committed suicide, [it] would never be talked about in the media. It was kind of an unspoken thing aimed at protecting the families involved, because of the stigma associated,” recalls Burnett. “But I think calling it what it is helps open the door for discussion.”
It’s a discussion that is long overdue. More reporting will keep the issue in the public eye, raising awareness. But for now, at least on campus, more can be done towards making those who are not actively seeking help aware of what is available to them.
“One of the things which I think might be a great step in the right direction is the inclusion of a note of relevant health services on the campus in course syllabi,” says Besik. “There is a note about accessibility services on them; I don’t see why a note on mental health services shouldn’t be included as well.”
It’s too late for the seven teenagers I named above, and for the countless others who felt they had no other option. If only they had known the truth about mental illness: It’s not weird. It’s not a weakness. It’s not something to hide. You’re not crazy and you are most certainly not alone. You are remarkably human and you need to embrace that.”