Let’s talk about suicide and our responsibility

Like many, I have had friends and family traumatized and impacted by the suicides of close ones. In the 1960s a great-aunt of mine died this way but it was kept a secret from most of the family for years out of shame due to the taboo nature of it at the time. She had three young kids.

Despite the awkwardness and pain of talking about it, suicide is not entirely unusual.

Ten times more people died from suicide than from homicide over the last few years in Canada. That’s more than 3,000 people each year. All ages, genders. Think of how much time we spend in fear of others hurting us. It’s harder to talk about our own mental health, and for healthy people, it’s hard to understand the urge to die.

A quote from the American novelist David Foster Wallace about suicidal depression is floating around the internet, from his book Infinite Jest. The writing is quite good, and heart-wrenching.

Take a minute to let it sink in, to empathize with and imagine the pain and the discomfort so tortuous that a person would actually rather not live than continue their life under those circumstances.

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise.

Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

As a society, we have to do better than be able to talk about suicide. Now that we have started lifting the stigma around mental illness and conversations about different mental conditions and disabilities are starting to enter the mainstream, we have to put our money where our mouth is: we actually have to make sure healthcare system works well for those who are in crisis, or getting there.

Unfortunately right now our public healthcare system is lacking in that regard; waitlists are full, solutions hard to find, the system confusing and intimidating to navigate for anyone but the most mentally calm and healthy, and the good doctors costly.

Warning signs for suicide include extreme mood swings, talking about suicide, talking about being a burden. To talk to someone for free and confidentially, call your local Distress Centre.

G.W.

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