David LeaInside Halton
Date Published: Tuesday, September 11, 2012
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This past Monday marked the 10th anniversary of World Suicide Prevention Day — a day when people are encouraged to discuss solutions to what Children’s Mental Health Ontario calls the second-leading cause of death among young people in Canada. The Oakville Beaver has explored the issue locally and, over the next few editions, will share personal stories, helpful information and places to seek support.
It’s a subject few are willing to discuss. Such is the stigma surrounding suicide that — for many — even a conversation about it can be distasteful or morbid.
Not talking about suicide, however, does not change the fact that it takes place in Halton on a regular basis.
Last weekend, the bodies of a father and his six-year-old son were discovered in their home on a quiet court in Milton, Ont. Police described it as a murder/suicide.
According to Halton police, in 2010 there were 301 attempted suicides and 23 residents who committed suicide. That number rose in 2011 with 372 attempted suicides and 26 people who took their own lives.
This year, between Jan. 1 and June 12, there were 184 incidents where people attempted suicide and five cases where residents killed themselves.
While the numbers seem down so far for 2012, Halton Region’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Bob Nosal said it is important not to read too much into the trends of a single year.
“You’re always going to get some slight variation, up and down,” he said.
“What’s important is to look at it over a longer term.”
(This story was written prior to the tragedy in Milton).
In an examination of those long-term trends, Nosal said that between 1995-99 in Halton, 96 men took their own lives compared to 33 women.
The numbers remained constant between 2001-05, with 96 men committing suicide compared to 36 women.
Typically, there are approximately 30 suicides in Halton each year. Nosal noted, however, that with the stability of the numbers and a growing population, it means the overall suicide rate in Halton has decreased.
Men typically complete the act of suicide more often than women. Teenage women often make more attempts.
The reasons why people decide to take their own lives vary, although Christina Jabalee, who is a member of the education sub-committee of the Halton Suicide Prevention Coalition, pointed out that 90 per cent of people who die by suicide have a mental illness or a substance abuse problem or both.
“Nobody wants to talk about death,” she said. “Suicide is a form of death so it is going to be scary to talk about regardless, but it is also scary because to us it seems unnatural. We think that everybody wants to live so anybody that wouldn’t be thinking that way scares us. We don’t understand it.”
Jabalee said many religions consider suicide a sin. Even when dealing with a suicidal individual, some people are scared to talk about it because they believe it may cause the person to actually take their own life, she said. The desire not to talk about suicide makes it more likely it will happen, she noted.
Jabalee said a person contemplating taking their life often feels isolated and alone.
They are considering the biggest decision they will ever make, she said, and if they have no one to discuss it with, it will fester.
“You feel worse, you feel helpless, you feel alone, you feel no one will understand you, you won’t be able to open up and that person could act on something, feeling like there isn’t any hope out there,” explained Jabalee.
She said discussing suicide is important because during the course of everyone’s lifetime they will be touched by it.
For some, this could mean losing a friend or knowing someone who has experienced suicidal thoughts.
Halton Suicide Prevention Coalition states that one in 10 youths think about taking their life, as does one person out of 20 in the general population.
Jabalee’s own life was touched by suicide in 2008 when her brother Michael claimed his own life.
Michael, who suffered from schizophrenia, struggled for years with nightmarish delusions. Among other things, the voices would tell him over and over again that he was worthless and a terrible burden to his mother. While what Michael was seeing and feeling was caused by schizophrenia, to him it was all too real.
In the end, he never received the consistent help he needed and, after years of moving in and out of hospital psychiatric units, detention centres, group homes and jails, his inability to live the normal life he so desperately wanted finally became too much to bear.
He was 25.
“There really isn’t a lot of time that passes where I don’t think about him or the impact he’s had on my life,” said Jabalee.
“I reflected on his death a lot afterwards. On the actual day he passed away, he called me and I said, ‘Hey Mike, how’s it going?’ and he said, ‘Well I’m alive, aren’t I?’ That was a flag.”
Jabalee said during that final conversation, Michael had also talked about feeling paranoid and overwhelmed. He mentioned he was consuming alcohol and had taken some unknown pill.
Jabalee said all were warning signs. At the time, though, she did not recognize them.
“I think we all feel that these tragic things won’t happen to us. They won’t happen to someone close to us,” she said.
“We think that person’s not really serious about suicide just because they are talking about it. Sometimes we don’t know how to handle something, so we shut down... take all suicide talk very seriously.”
Jabalee conducts presentations at schools and other venues educating people on how to recognize when a person may be suicidal and how people can access help.
She said destroying the stigma associated with suicide and mental health is key because people experiencing such thoughts are encouraged to talk to someone whom they trust and is non-judgmental.
If the person has no one in their life they feel they can turn to, Jabalee recommends calling COAST (Crisis Outreach and Support Team) at 1-877-825-9011.
She said if you know someone who might be suicidal be direct with the person and ask them if they are.
If the answer is ‘yes’, the individual needs to find out how immediate is the risk. If the situation is serious, call the police.
“We remind people to listen to someone who is having suicidal thoughts because that person has potentially never talked to anyone else about it and probably has a lot to get off their chest, including reasons why they were thinking about dying. This can be very hard to hear, but it could be very therapeutic for the person who can finally get this out and discuss it,” said Jabalee.
“We remind everybody that they can’t keep it a secret. If someone has disclosed this information to you, you are either encouraged to go with them to get support or you can call on their behalf and get support if they are unwilling. Keeping it a secret is not going to help.”
Jabalee said COAST offers good support and young people can also find help at school through teachers, principals, guidance counsellors and mental health liaison staff.
Worrying the person may be angry if you call 911 or arrange other support for them, shouldn’t stop anyone from taking action.
It is far better for a friend to be upset than dead, she said.
People should not assume that just because a friend has stopped talking about suicide these tendencies have gone away.
Marina Sue-Ping of the Halton Suicide Prevention Coalition calls suicide a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
“At the time they are attempting suicide, there often is a solution for them, but they just can’t see it at the moment,” she said.
“They just want the pain to be gone. They don’t necessarily want to die, they just can’t see another option.”
(Please note that CMHO staff does not reply to comments that are posted on news stories.)