My Outlook - It's time to talk about the "s" word

It was a series of conversations that first alerted us to the potentially dangerous situation. We wondered what we could do to help. Then came the call asking us all to gather as quickly as we could. Given the urgency, it seemed to affirm what we feared, yet hearing the words out loud was something we were unprepared for. A student who was part of our school community had taken his life.

A few years earlier, as a university student, I spent my first year living in a dorm. One night a lot of shock and confusion suddenly erupted with people running down hallways and yelling for someone to find a Resident Assistant to call an ambulance. A student on the second floor had taken a bunch of pills in what seemed to be a suicide attempt. Panic spread throughout the dorm so quickly it reached the fourth floor, where I lived, in a matter of moments. I didn’t know the guy really well, but by virtue of living in a dorm together we all knew him well enough to be concerned.

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It was the first time I had been confronted with someone I knew attempting to end their life. Or so I thought. A few days later I met up with a couple friends from high school and as we talked about what had happened in my dorm one of them quietly said, “I know what it’s like. I’ve been there.”

I had no idea. We’d known each other since the eighth grade. We went to a small high school. How did we not know what was really going on?

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month—an effort to raise awareness, improve education and openly communicate with those who have had suicidal thoughts or those who have lost loved ones to suicide. It’s so hard to talk about and consequently…we don’t talk enough. That needs to change.

Last week my co-worker shared his story of confronting the suicidal thoughts he had as an eighth grader. It was heartbreaking to hear of the darkness he faced when he was so young and didn’t see a way through the situation. It’s a chapter of his life he’d not previously shared and he is to be commended for his openness, honesty, and for the strength he showed in allowing himself to be vulnerable. He did something too few are able to do—talk about the subject of suicide.

In Canada, 11.8% of people report having had thoughts of suicide in their lifetime and more than 4,000 take their lives each year. Sadly, that number will likely be higher this year given what mental health professionals describe as a consequence of dealing with the pandemic. But the flip side is that the conversation seems to be opening up a bit more because of the focus on mental health and the increased resources in that area due to the current situation. So now, perhaps as never before, we can seize this moment and seek to develop a deeper understanding of what is so painful to talk about.

I wish I could say I haven’t gotten this awful news more than a few times but that just isn’t the case. Former students I have known, individuals connected to my friends, and members of my community are gone as a result of suicide. My thoughts turn immediately to their families and closest friends and the pain they must be in as they try to come to terms with the anguish their loved one was in. I hope they felt supported because I’ll admit--I find it so hard to know what to do or say that could in any way be helpful.

The time for this to be hidden in the shadows is gone. It helps no one to not talk about it. It does no good to pretend this isn’t a reality we all need to face. It is complicated, messy and hard to confront, but thankfully there are people willing to talk and help us understand. It might be a friend, a neighbor, or a colleague who works down the hall. When they are able to share the toughest part of their story, we need to be ready to respond with the softest part of our hearts. That’s my outlook.

© The Outlook

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