The Plague-Ground – Death Has Less Dominion

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?

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20 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – Death Has Less Dominion”

  1. This is very timely Bob. There is indeed despair and loneliness leading to suicidal thoughts. It is also important that medically assisted suicide, now called MAID, be on the alert for our elders who wish to die because of boredom and loneliness. I hope that the assessments, now done by phone, encourage the patients to reach out for the kind of care you advocate for in this piece. It is a much better solution than dying by suicide, assisted or not.

  2. Such a important message. I recently read something along these lines and the importance of connecting with people you may feel are troubled. Their last line was “don’t let anyone die of shame”

  3. Madeline Thompson

    Beautiful piece on this Bob! It is crucial we talk about
    suicide, take it out of the murky silence that still exists
    on this subject.

    FYI – my great-great-grandmother was one of the early
    inmates in CAMh; when I was younger it was known
    simply as 999 Queen street, or just 999.

    Thank you for posting Bob!

      1. Madeline Thompson

        I think that was the reason Bob. 1001 is far too clumsy to make
        jokes about… finally they gave it a proper name.

        1. Jennifer — I’m touched by your comment, and thank you for thinking I make a difference.
          Hang in, and remember, the Murphy Bed awaits!

    1. Karen — Jean is a MAiD doctor and lives with this issue every day. Plus all the very very old people who, at age 95, have no one left and just want to leave.

  4. Oh Bob, This article is so poignant. While an initial silver lining in this terrible time was that people had more time to walk, to observe, to talk and to reach out, all of that has lost its novelty in the sameness of the days. It takes a conscious effort to try to search out the daily miracle and to make the phone call or communication of any kind. We need something to believe in to pull us through. Your articles are wonderful and remind that we all have the power to change a life..

  5. Many thanks Bob for writing about this incredibly important issue.

    Reading this post today was especially poignant for me as it would have been my brother’s 60th birthday today if he had not committed suicide 6 years ago.

  6. Over my many years of employment with courts, CAMH reps were there to assist those in the most desperate of situations. Thanks, Bob, for this very thought provoking blog, for supporting CAMH, for Mr Rogers words of wisdom and for highlighting this campaign.

  7. Bob, words are your thing and this is a plea to use your influence to reconsider the use of the phrase ‘committing suicide’.
    I think is based on the fact that once upon a time ‘the attempt to commit suicide’ was a crime. ‘Committing’ smacks of criminal/illegal behaviour, eg committing murder. Suicide is an act of desperation, not bad behaviour. There is no fault attached to the act of suicide
    There continues to a stigma attached to suicide and we need to do whatever we can do to remove that stigma. The language we use is important and does influence views.

    A more accurate phrase might be ‘took their own life’. Now that is a poignant phrase. I have also seen ‘died by suicide’.

    For your consideration

    1. Joyce — Thanks for your lovely words….indeed, CAMH and their colleagues are doing a lot of the heavy lifting around suicide — whether in the courts, the hospitals or people’s homes. Cheers and love,

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