Editor's note: Suicide is one of those issues that tears at the fabric of our society and never so much so than when it involves a young person. Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley, who shares the grief of a community like the rest of us, wrote a column which was published (ironically enough) a year ago. We believe it deserves revisiting—printed with the Mayor's permission.
By MIKE BRADLEY
I challenge you to read this column to the end. Many people will read that the topic is mental health and suicide and turn the page quickly. When mentioned that I was considering writing a column about suicide, some people grimaced which tells the story all too well. The reactions were symbolic of many of us not wanting to confront the issue of suicide, depression or mental health. The topic touches the dark side inside many of us. Scared to admit that when we look in the mirror we have been touched or contemplated the "easy" way out in times of great pain, difficulty and grief. Do you remember the theme song of the TV show MASH–"Suicide is Painless"?
"Through early morning fog I see
Visions of the things to be
The pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see
That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it if I please"
Suicide is not painless. Suicide leaves great grief, recriminations, anger, loss and countless unanswered questions to survivors. For too long there has been an unwillingness to openly discuss mental health issues and the devastating impact on communities by Canadians–a stigma that we need to confront in Canadian society.
At least 3,500 people take their own lives annually in Canada which is 11 times the murder rate. As we sadly know in this community in the past few years, the suicide rate among young people is an epidemic. Cyber bullying, substance abuse, sexuality, self-esteem, relationships, are just a few of the factors that contribute to this tragic loss of lives. It is the second leading cause of death among young Canadians. One man who lost his sister to suicide said "just imagine every six months crashing a 747 jumbo jet of young people with no survivors."
The Poet Keats wrote "to think is to be full of sorrow." Thinking about the tragic loss of so many young people does bring sorrow but it can also bring hope to prevent others from doing so. There is currently a Private Members' Bill, Bill C-593, sponsored by Megan Leslie, an MP from Halifax, working its way through the Legislative process. The Bill is to develop a national suicide prevention strategy for Canada. Sadly, there is billions for new jails, fighter jets and stadiums, but not enough for mental health support. Private Members' Bills rarely pass the Houses of Commons but governments often adopt them as their own. At the very least, the Bill has raised awareness and shone a spotlight on the issue.
Editor's note: The Bill did not become law.
After asking Sarnia and Lambton County Councils to support the Bill, the media attention on the issue led a number of people to send their personal stories. All were poignant and heart wrenching. One I read and reread, tearfully, before responding. It painted the human picture of suicide. It is quoted with permission of the writer.
"I am the mother of the first boy from Northern High School who took his life on September 5, 2010. My son's name was Joshua. He would have turned fifteen years on September 27, 2010. Josh was a tall, handsome, intelligent, articulate individual who was respected by his peers. He had more friends than most, had leadership qualities and amazing charisma. Outwardly he presented as a kid who had it all. Silently he suffered with some form of mental illness. "
Josh's Mom went on to describe his difficulty getting treatment through a social agency and even though he was "prioritized as he was considered suicidal" there was a three week wait for the assessment. She does not blame the overwhelmed agency and social workers but the underfunded mental health system. Desperate, she sought the help of two psychiatrists. One Doctor received the referral on August 19th. Despite several pleas to speed up the appointment, it never happened. The call for Josh to come in to see the Doctor came on December 1, 2010–to Josh's heartbroken Mother, three months after he died and 15 weeks from the time of referral to when they called.
Josh's Mom continued in her comments……"Mr. Mayor, I will never know if one of these psychiatrists could have saved my son. What I do believe is that they could possibly save someone else's son or daughter. The mental health issues of our children is paramount. The kids are the future of our tomorrow, our leaders, and our teachers. If they do not have peace of mind they have nothing. The devastation his loss has created is indescribable. The collateral damage one lost life causes is beyond words. Our lives are forever shattered. The frustration and anger towards this inadequate health system leaves me anguished and heartbroken. No child should be made to wait and no parent should be put on this roller coaster ride. You have my support and I respect your voice. I am willing to lend my voice to speak out on behalf our community to get the attention and funding from our government that our children rightly deserve."
The biggest challenge to make Josh's Mom's hopes come true will be to get politicians to embrace the cause of suicide prevention. Why don't they embrace the cause like many others they champion? Simple–it doesn't fit the optimistic, positive image they want to present of themselves to their community or country.
Politicians aren't immune from depression and mental health issues but the stigma of acknowledging their own struggles is still seen as a career killer. Depression knows no barriers and the political life is full of highs and lows. Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill both suffered from the "black dog" of depression. Personally, in times of deep, personal despair, instead of acknowledging the struggle, I too put on the "game face" and struggle on. Phil Upshall, a mental health expert, told The Toronto Star "A typical politician's life is filled with exactly the kind of conditions that can create depression: long hours, isolation from family, too many social functions, not enough exercise or healthy food and –not least of all – the endless withering criticism." He commented about the "lows" in politics which can be more acute. "Because so much of the politician's life takes place in public, where failures can be magnified and weakness is a career limiting trait." Ironic that those who have the ability to save lives in public life may shy away from doing so because of the dark nature of the issue, the fear of association and the negativity of the cause. Never have the words "I have met the enemy, and he is us" been more fitting.