Conquering the mental health stigma – the importance of suicide awareness

by Rebekah Benoit

December, with its rounds of holiday parties, family gatherings around the Christmas tree and festive dinners, is a favourite time of year for many people. But for at least four families in Fort McMurray, this December was a time of sorrow and grieving. The final month of the year saw four suicides in the city, an unusually high number which is raising the alarm amongst agencies like Some Other Solutions (SOS) about the importance of suicide awareness.
“It is unusual to have so many in one month within our community, and it’s also unusual to have so many in the month of December,” says Linda Sovdi, Health and Wellness manager with SOS in Fort McMurray.
Sovdi debunks the commonly-believed perception that suicides peak around the holidays. In fact, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), suicide rates in Canada peak during the months of July and August, challenging the folk wisdom that suggests that people are most despondent and prone to suicide during the winter months.
CMHA does note, however, the rates of depression increase during the holiday season, something that Sovdi says is not surprising. “January and February, the beginning of the year, can be greeted with resolutions and excitement for the coming year, but it can also weigh heavily on people,” she says.
“We want people to be aware that when stressful situations happen, they can reach out. They can call and get help finding a job, finding housing, finding emotional support,” Sovdi says. “They don’t have to shy away or become reclusive or quiet. We want people to reach out and talk, to get help so we don’t have another statistic.”
While the city’s suicide rate is not disproportionate to the population, Fort McMurray’s lifestyle does present unique risk factors.
“We live in a community of extremes – extreme cold, extremely remote, extreme money but also extreme poverty. We’re a city of extremes and people feel it,” Sovdi says. “We’re a very affluent community – some people have disposable income and lots of it – but there is also isolation. People may have lots of money but no time and no friends to spend it with. And people can feel very disconnected because they literally are disconnected from their families.”
Sovdi says. “When people are lonely and sad, they tend to make choices that are not the best for them, because they want to numb or fog their reality, and this can lead to consequences that they didn’t consider.”
Fort McMurray also has a large population of men, which statistics say are most at risk for death by suicide. In fact, according to CMHA, men complete suicide at a rate four times higher than that of women. By contrast, women attempt suicide at a much higher rate than men – attempted suicide rates are three to four times higher for women – but are not as successful in ending their own lives as males.
Sovdi says this is likely due to the means by which men typically end their own lives as compared to women. “Most of the time, men choose a methodology in which there is not going to be a chance of recovery. Women tend to use a methodology that, if caught in time, can be reversed and they can be saved. Men tend to choose more lethal means,” she explains.
Despite attempts to raise awareness of suicide and community efforts aimed at prevention, stigma around mental health and taking one’s own life continue to cling to the issue. As late as 1972, attempting suicide was still a crime in Canada under the Criminal Code, which explains why the term “committing suicide” has long been used to refer to the taking of one’s own life. Suicide prevention experts urge people to use the term “completing suicide” instead of “committing,” in an effort to help remove some of the stigma still attached to the act.
Though suicide in Canada is not illegal, there remains a great deal of shame surrounding the issue. Sovdi says that families who have lost loved ones to suicide may attempt to hide the fact or shroud the death in secrecy to avoid perceived judgment from those around them.
“How traumatic for family members who have lost loved ones to suicide, to then go through the trauma of people judging them because of it,” Sovdi says. “That’s the last thing [family members] should encounter. People should reach out and care. You don’t have to have the answers, just reach out. These people have sustained a brutal and horrific loss and they need love, so take them a meal, mow their lawn, shovel their walkway. Stop talking at them, save your judgments and opinions, and reach out to them.”
Sovdi also challenges the common misperception that talking about suicide will lead others to complete the act themselves. “That just isn’t true,” she says. “The average person, after having a bad day, doesn’t go home and say, ‘I’m going to take my own life tonight,’ and talking about it isn’t going to make that happen. If we would talk about it more, it would reduce some of the stigma and weirdness attached to it.”
“When people are having suicidal thoughts, they’re not in a good place. But people are so afraid to talk about it when they need help, they don’t know what to do with those thoughts,” she adds. “Our whole message as an agency is that this is happening, so let’s talk about it.”
When a person is experiencing suicidal thoughts, Sovdi says that often, they cannot see a way past their current situation, which is why seeking help and talking about it is so vital. “Economic failure, a relationship loss, financial crisis, the loss of a pet – all of these things are triggers for grief. Unless they get help, [suicidal] people don’t think they’ll ever see the light of day again – they can’t see a way to get through it. When people can’t see a way past their situation, they get desperate and make desperate decisions,” Sovdi says. “When they reach out and talk to someone, they get an outside perspective. Someone shows them, ‘Hey, we can fix this.’ Someone can help them troubleshoot and they realize [the situation] is not as hopeless or overwhelming as they thought.”

SOS operates a 24-hour crisis hotline with volunteers trained to help people in just such overwhelming situations, a phone number which Sovdi says SOS wants everyone in the community to have at their fingertips. In addition to providing emotional support to callers and helping to talk them through stressful situations or crises, crisis line volunteers can also help callers access the many community supports and resources available for mental health issues, such as financial support, professional counseling, employment help and more, by calling 780-743-4357.