We must talk about suicide
The man who called the Advocate newsroom this week wanted to know why we weren’t reporting yet another suicide in the 2013 graduating class of Red Deer’s high schools. The seventh teenager since September killed himself last weekend, he said. All of them were 17, he said. They attended three different high schools in Red Deer.
I told him he was the first to call us. We did not know.
It seemed incredulous. How could seven teen suicides be kept quiet?
We heard through the grapevine that grief counsellors were offering services to students and staff at the high school where the latest student to die had attended. Another said an anti-suicide rally was planned. Someone said a fund for suicide awareness was being set up by the graduating class. All of the information was being conveyed along the grapevine. It appeared by midweek that everyone in Red Deer knew a horrible truth. Yet no one would talk publicly to confirm even one of the recent deaths.
When the topic of suicide was broached, almost everyone knew someone at some time who had committed suicide in their family, in their peer group, in their network of school or business colleagues. It seemed that all that news came in hushed tones and no one knew anyone who wanted to talk publicly about it. No one could recall a death notice that ever mentioned suicide as a cause of death.
An Advocate reporter discovered a Facebook page Suicide Awareness Red Deer, it’s #timeforchange had been set up earlier in the week in memory of six students. The outpouring of emotion on that site, mostly by young people, was both wrenching and touching. What could not be talked about publicly by adults was finding a forum on social media. By Friday afternoon, more than 6,400 people had registered with the site that had broken the silence on the recent suicides.
These voices could not be silenced by stigma, shame or fear. Fear of what, we are not sure. Is it fear of adding further heartache to grieving families? Is it fear that the mere mention of death by suicide will make that seem a more likely option for other people who are hurting? Is it fear that suicide could affect us if we uttered those words. Yet clearly everyone is affected and is talking about suicide, privately. And clearly keeping quiet had not prevented these recent deaths nor many others.
The number of people who take their own lives is staggering.
In Alberta, 513 people died of suicide in 2010. Three-quarters of those who took their own lives were male. That same year, 6,886 people in Alberta were treated at hospital for attempts at suicide, of whom more than 58 per cent were female (Suicide/Self-inflicted Injuries in Alberta).
And Albertans are not alone. In 2009, Statistics Canada reports 3,890 suicides across the country.
The suicide forum on Red Deer social media has sounded an alarm that we need to answer. People are saying individually and collectively that they will not be quiet about suicide. They share their grief about the loss of young people they loved and cherished.
Talking about suicide on social media is not enough. We need to talk publicly about a serious problem that is killing people and shattering the lives of those around them. Suicide is not something for hushed conversations. We need to utter the word suicide out loud, repeatedly. Then we need to put our heads together to address the underlying issues so we can prevent suicides and better help those affected by suicide.
Like the voices on the social media site said: It’s time for change.
(For help or more details about suicide prevention, go to www.suicideprevention.ca, suicidehelp.ca or kidshelpphone.com (or call the help phone at 1-800-668-6868). To see the Facebook page Suicide Awareness Red Deer, go to http://www.facebook.com/groups/489427161093590/. If you or anyone you know is contemplating, call 911.)
Carolyn Martindale is the Advocate’s city editor. Reach her at 403-314-4326 or firstname.lastname@example.org.