Just over two weeks ago, the world recoiled in shock and sadness at the news that comic actor Robin Williams, a familiar and beloved face whose humour delighted generations, had died. Following shortly on the news that Willliams was gone was the more shocking revelation, delivered in a murmured whisper by many: the comic had died by his own hand, hanging himself at his home after battling depression and a recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
Some mental-health experts expressed concern that releasing details of the actor’s suicide might inspire other depressed people to follow in his footsteps. It would be better, some said, not to talk about it, but simply to remember the actor for his comic genius and the laughter he’d brought to so many.
That response, a natural reaction to a topic that remains highly taboo, is exactly the wrong approach, says Janene Hickman, support and wellness counselor with Some Other Solutions (SOS).
“I think there’s still some of that old belief that if you talk about suicide, people are going to do it. It’s a lot like how, in the old days, we were afraid to talk to kids about sex, because we were afraid they’d run out and do it,” Hickman says. “We know now that having conversations about suicide actually decreases the number of people who complete it. People feel relieved, because they’ve been given permission to talk about it. That stigma is off the table.”
When it comes to talking about suicide, times have definitely changed. In the past, mental health professionals referred to the act of suicide as “committing suicide,” because the act itself was technically a crime. Up until 1972, if you attempted suicide and did not succeed, you could be charged under the Criminal Code. Thankfully, those dark days are gone – although counseling someone to commit suicide still remains a crime – but the stigma around the act itself remains.
“It’s one of those taboo subjects we’re really not comfortable talking about as mainstream society,” explains Hickman. And yet it’s something that begs to be talked about. Worldwide, someone completes suicide every 40 seconds. Here in Alberta, more than 500 Albertans every year die by their own hand. While women are more likely to attempt suicide, statistics show that they also tend to choose less lethal means, and as a result, are less likely to complete the act. According to the Centre for Suicide Prevention, Canadian men are three times more likely to complete suicide than women.
“To me, these are staggering statistics, but the reality is that for every suicide that is reported, there are hundreds more attempts that are not reported,” Hickman says. “Yet there’s still such a stigma around the whole topic of self-harm, of depression and mental illness that are often coincidental with suicide.”
Knowing that talking helps and can even keep people from completing suicide, why are so many of us leery to discuss the topic at all? Hickman suggests the fear is largely based on ignorance. “I think people are uncomfortable talking about it because of a lack of knowledge, training or skills to deal with the situation.”
As uncomfortable as friends and family may be to talk to a loved one they suspect might be considering suicide, the stigma also extends to those who are thinking about it, says Hickman. “Nobody really wants to admit that they’re vulnerable. In our society, you’re supposed to be powerful, strong and successful. Success and suicide, or mental illness or addiction, don’t really go hand-in-hand,” Hickman says.
Fort McMurray, with its disproportionately male population and high number of shift workers, is a community at higher risk for suicide, Hickman says. “People who are vulnerable to suicide statistically show a lack of connectedness, a feeling of social isolation. This increases when people are living far away from their families, or are newcomers living alone,” Hickman explains. “This is a fairly large portion of our community.”
“I don’t want to present Fort McMurray in a bad light – we’re a fantastic community with an abundance of resources,” cautions Hickman. “But the way of life here does put people at a higher risk.”
As World Suicide Prevention Week approaches, SOS is gearing up for a number of awareness events aimed at getting people talking about suicide and how to prevent it. To raise awareness, yellow ribbons will be given out at various businesses and organizations throughout the community including the City Centre urban market, and the agency is making a special point to visit junior high and high schools in Fort McMurray to start the conversation among youth about suicide.
“We recognize that kids have their fingers on the pulse of what’s going on in the world today. They have access to much more information than other generations did,” Hickman says of the importance of raising awareness among young people. “With that information, we want to make sure they’re armed with the appropriate skills and resources to know what [warning signs] to look for in themselves and others.”
It’s all the more important because young adults are more likely to confide in friends than in authority figures such as teachers, counselors or even parents, Hickman says.
“Would a young adult go to a teacher or a school counselor? Maybe, but it’s more likely they’re going to talk to their friends,” Hickman says. “At this age, kids are forming social networks and friendships are very important. We want them to be able to recognize [the warning signs], to see a classmate and say, ‘What’s up? You don’t seem like yourself. Is everything okay?’ And we want them not to be afraid to ask the question, because they’re not sure what to do if their friend says that they’re not okay.”
The week of September 10, Hickman says she’d like to see everyone in Fort McMurray wearing a yellow ribbon, not only to raise awareness but to send the message to those who might be struggling with mental illness or suicidal thoughts that the community cares and wants to help.
“For every person who is struggling, we want to make sure they know that we support suicide prevention, we’re prepared to talk about it and we have resources that can help,” Hickman says.
Perhaps the most important piece of information Hickman wants to get out to the public is the phone number of SOS’s 24-hour anonymous crisis line, which offers support from trained listeners and can help people who are struggling connect with the resources available to them, from emergency services and doctors to private counseling. “Anytime of the day or night, there is a listener available, for those who are feeling suicidal, or family members, friends or colleagues who are concerned about someone else,” Hickman says. “In that moment when people are reaching out, we want them to have the ability to talk to someone. We want them to know that there’s someone listening.”
The Crisis Line is available 24 hours at 780-743-HELP. The SOS office is also available to provide information and training to businesses and other community organizations through their office line at 780-743-8605.