Storybook Project aims to reduce stigma around suicide, give comfort, hope

TORONTO — Suicide. It’s a word rife with stigma, an act spoken about in hush-hush tones or not acknowledged at all — and one that leaves family and friends not only bereft but reeling at the desperation that drove a loved one to take their own life.

But a project being initiated at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto hopes to help reduce that stigma and raise awareness, while bringing comfort to people touched by the suicide of a loved one or those who have contemplated or attempted to end their lives.

Known as the Storybook Project, it will be a compilation of stories from those who have experienced a loss through suicide or may see the act as the only way to escape a life filled with physical or emotional pain.

“One thing we hope to achieve is a sense of healing, so creativity in and of itself is a very healing thing,” said researcher Sakina Rizvi, who is spearheading the project.

“It allows people to process their experiences in a different way, in a way that is a little bit more removed, in a way that’s a little bit more safe,” she said. “Hope is so important for people who are in crisis or for people who have lost someone, who feel like life is never going to be OK.”

Rizvi was driven to launch the Storybook Project after reading a Washington Post article by a reporter who was among several writers contacted through email by an American living in Japan. The man, who was unknown to the recipients, sent the 2013 email as a suicide note.

One reporter emailed a woman mentioned in the note and notified the U.S. Embassy in Japan another, who had lost loved ones to suicide, emailed the man directly.

But they were too late — he had already taken his life.

“It just made me realize the amount of stories … (and) the experiences that people have to share. And I think that those things deserve a voice,” said Rizvi.

“It’s a place where you can read about people’s struggles and their path to healing … someone just saying, ‘Hey, I’ve been through that and it can get better,”’ she said of the Storybook project, officially launched Tuesday. “It’s a simple thing, but it’s so powerful.”

Submissions will be published online in about six months, followed by a book containing 10 to 20 selected stories, with all proceeds going to the hospital’s Arthur Sommer Rotenberg Suicide and Depression Studies program.

The project welcomes stories up to 10 pages long from Canadians across the country.

Rizvi already has six submissions, among them one from Bruce Ross, a 58-year-old accountant in Chatham, Ont., who has struggled with severe depression since adolescence and admitted to contemplating suicide several times over the last 40 years.

Ross, who had three friends take their own lives, said he came closest to following their path at age 21 while living with his family in Dartmouth, N.S., and attending university.

“I reached into my closet and pulled out Dad’s 12-gauge Cooey shotgun that I used to hunt rabbits,” he writes in his submission. “I fondled it like a kitten, pondering whether this would, or more appropriately, should be the ‘final solution’ to escape my pain.

“After much solemn deliberation, I returned the shotgun to its proper place. I then lay on my bed and wept.”

What stopped him?

“As far as actually carrying it out, I’m not sure,” conceded Ross in a phone interview from Chatham.

“I’ve a pretty strong inner strength and I always had optimism and hope … that I could get myself out of the dark hole.”

Ross, who was later diagnosed with depression — his wife recognized the signs — was treated over time with more than 20 different antidepressants, cognitive behavioural therapy and electroshock.

Nothing worked.

It wasn’t until 2010, when he had a procedure called deep brain stimulation — in which electrodes placed in the brain act on the areas linked to depression — that he got some relief.

“It changed a little bit, but I can’t say it was a miracle worker,” he admitted. “It took away some of the negative thoughts and ruminations, but unfortunately it didn’t replace it with so-called happy thoughts.”

His advice to others aching with psychological pain that is propelling them towards the idea of ending it all is to “not be ashamed.”

“There’s no shame in saying that you have depression, but don’t give up.”

David and Deborah Cooper of Toronto also know the pain of suicide: their eldest son Eli took his own life just before his 31st birthday in July 2010 after suffering with the demons of bipolar disorder, which he had developed as a teen.

“Eli was a young adult who was full of promise, he was joyful, he had a great intellect…. He had so many dreams and plans,” said David Cooper.

“But the illness was progressive and it basically took over his life…. He couldn’t fight the battle any longer.”

When the family learned of his death, “my first reaction was relief for him, that he was out of pain,” said his father, who now counsels other parents who have lost a child through suicide at the Toronto Distress Centre.

“The parents, after something like this happens, there’s the panic, the shock … that instant that changes our lives forever.”

Cooper said those left behind go through a long journey of grieving, but in time move towards healing and away from the process of mourning.

“When your child dies, especially by suicide, the one constant with parents that lose a child is they need to keep the memory alive,” said Cooper, who will not only be taking part in the Storybook Project but has written a book about suicide due out in January called “Bridge Over the River Why.”

“Encouraging others to talk and to share the memories of our son is a gift,” he said. “We ask them not to be afraid our of tears.

“We need someone to hold our hand while we face this horror. We need validation that we’re doing the best we can with the hardest challenge that we’ll ever face.”

The Coopers are in the process of setting up a rural treatment centre for young people with mental illness and concurrent substance abuse called Eli’s Place, in honour of their son.


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