05 September 2011
mental health mondays :: what we aren't talking about is killing us
i was reminded of this in the last week because i saw a story that dealt with suicide on the cbc. they were talking about an "epidemic" of suicides, particularly among teenagers and young adults on a reserve in northern ontario. it's a tragic situation, but what struck me as truly sad was that, in order to get any coverage on the media, suicides do have to be "epidemic", or "mass", or something out of the ordinary. the sad case of the individual who takes their own life out of desperation or fear is erased from public consciousness and, as a result, the need for resources to help prevent other suicides falls from the public view. what's worse is that it allows myths about suicide to be perpetuated, because so much of our understanding of the subject becomes hearsay.
the idea itself that talking about suicide will actually drive someone to commit it is, to my mind, something made up by people who wanted an excuse to avoid an uncomfortable conversation. there is no evidence to suggest that talking to people about suicide does anything to encourage them. in fact, it may allow them the chance to talk about their suicidal thoughts rather than acting on them. but with something as heavily stigmatised in religion and in culture as suicide, people are reluctant to bring up the subject.
there is also the old chestnut that people who threaten to kill themselves or who talk about killing themselves aren't going to do so. possibly 80% of those who later commit or attempt suicide give some indication, which would make talking about it in advance the most likely indicator of suicidal intentions. keep that in mind the next time you think someone is being melodramatic.
when suicide does get attention, it's often as an epidemic among young people. suicide does rank higher as a cause of death among young people, but that's largely because they're unlikely to die of other things such as heart attacks and cancer. statistically, in canada at least, the largest number of suicides are committed by people in their forties and fifties, which flies in the face of the idea that suicide is a phenomenon of youthful rashness [or elderly melancholy, for that matter]. those who are supposedly the most stable in their lives are actually at the highest risk. how come no one ever talks about them?
the rush to dismiss or ignore facts about suicide borders on the obsessive and points to a profound state of denial that there is a serious and growing problem. and as a result, the problem grows ever worse. the one thing that never seems to be discussed is that the best thing one can do is be vigilant about those close by and watch for signs that something may be wrong. we can theorise that those who commit suicide are selfish or weak, that they want attention, that they are beyond help or that they are damned, but what remains clear is that none of those ideas are making things any better. to borrow a slogan from a similarly stigmatised killer, silence equals death.
i was impressed by metanoia's page on suicide. lots of links for people in different situations.