Two years ago, four adult children from four different families we know well, killed themselves. This was in addition to the two who died from accidental drug overdoses.
Naturally, I believed that the suicide rate must be rising.
I was wrong. In the Year 2000, 11.7 Canadians in every 100,000 of us committed suicide. In 2019, that had fallen to 10.9 in every 100,000 of us, although it’s still the second leading cause of death among teens and young adults (15 to 24), and last year Nunavut’s suicide rate was reported to be the highest in the world.
That was then. This is COVID-now, when financial stress and isolation are not only depressing more of us, they could drive more of us to take our lives. It seems more Canadians are already thinking about committing suicide this year.
This will be the latest strain of deaths of despair, a phrase which describes the sudden rise in the number of middle-aged white Americans dying after manufacturing fled the country and which Angus Deaton won a Nobel Prize for uncovering in 2015.
Lockdowns loom. Winter is coming. How can we keep from taking our lives?
One answer arrived in my newsfeed last week. It said “Not Suicide. Not Today.”
It’s a campaign urging us to talk with our families and colleagues about suicide — whether we feel suicidal or not — so that we can drag this last lethal demon out of the closet.
There are all kinds of mental health campaigns out there. Most, like Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk campaign, talk about depression and anxiety. But this is the first one in Canada to talk about the ultimate mental illness, the one for which there is no point of return. It’s the work of CAMH, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto and their marketing agency, Camp Jefferson.
A century ago, CAMH was officially called the Asylum for the Insane. Not long ago, it was also called the nut house or the looney bin. All mental hospitals were. Today, we don’t say those things. Depression and anxiety have been out of the closet for years.
Not so for suicide which is so deadly, so final, so damning and condemning – and not just for the person whose pain is so great that they’re compelled to end their lives to end that pain. The death of someone by suicide can feel like a life sentence for their family.
Today, CAMH is not just among the top handful of hospitals treating patients with mental illnesses; it’s one of the top research hubs in the world and one of the very few policy think-tanks on the subject as well.
One goal of Not Suicide. Not Today is to shatter some big stereotypes, like who thinks of killing themselves. So I urge you to watch Angie Elliot, a more upbeat, down-to-earth person you’ve rarely seen. CAMH “made sure my parents wouldn’t have to bury a child.” She then makes a point we should not forget: “In saving one life, they’ve saved easily a hundred lives in the process.” I mean, can there be a worse grief than having your child die before you do?
For all of CAMH’s adherence to science, it’s ironic that their campaign is based more on magical thinking. The idea that I may want to kill myself, I just don’t need to do it today, is the kind of mind-game we all play at some time in our lives. In fact, the entire 12-step movement and its anchor, Alcoholics Anonymous, is based on exactly the same idea. I don’t have to give up drinking forever, or taking drugs. That would be just too impossible to contemplate. (Believe me, I know).
But not drink or take a drug today? Just one day? I think I can do that. And when I wake up tomorrow and feel I want to drink or take drugs or take my life, well…there’s a good chance I can do that again. Not suicide, not today. And maybe today, someone will reach out to me.
As Mr. Rogers once said: “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”
And what wall is too small to tape those words to?