Suicide in the news

I found it curious that last Saturday two of our national newspapers had below-the-fold cover stories on the topic of suicide.

Suicide is something that rarely gets discussed among family members, let alone in our mainstream media. In this case though, both stories covered the suicidal deaths of soldiers. The Globe and Mail investigated the death of Major Michelle Mendes, who killed herself in Afganistan at the age of 30. The Ottawa Citizen looked at the death of Corporal Stuart Langridge who was only 28 years old when he took his life at CFB Edmonton.

The copy found in each article certainly doesn’t say, “working in the army made this young person kill themselves,” but the fact that suicide rarely gets coverage and that here, on the very same day, are two cover stories on the suicide of soldiers … well,  the implicit link gets made by the reader who is casually scanning the headlines over their Saturday morning coffee. It’s an incorrect assumption though since suicide rates in the Canadian forces are lower than in the general population, as the Globe‘s Christie Blatchford and Jessica Leeder rightly note.

If (and please do note my “if”) the Canadian forces can be considered guilty of sweeping mental illness under the carpet, they certainly wouldn’t be the only employer to do so. According to a Great-West poll, employees feel the workplace is where they are least likely to get support. The effect that the stigma of mental illness has upon sufferers cannot be underestimated. I think that Bill Wilkerson, CEO of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, expressed it perfectly in a 2008 Globe and Mail article when he said: “There’s this attitude out there that if you come back [to work] from cancer, you’re a hero, but if you come back from depression, you’re damaged goods.”

One of the only employers to publicly embrace this issue is Canada Post Corporation [disclaimer: as a freelance writer, I am a regular contributor to Canada Post’s employee magazine Contact]. In 2007, Canada Post chose mental health as its cause of choice and became the first major corporation in the country to do so. Phil Upshall, national executive director of the Mood Disorders Society of Canada [disclaimer: I worked with Mood Disorders Society of Canada in 2007 as a freelance writer/communications consultant] and founding member of the Canadian Alliance for Mental Illness and Mental Health, says that “mental health is well understood by many Canadian corporate leaders, but financial and other support goes elsewhere because of the stigma of mental illness. We need to admit that mental illness exists, and we need to talk about it and advocate for change.”

For those dealing with their own mental illness or that of a family member, this kind of change can not come quick enough.

For further reading on:
Stigma and children, a letter to the editor by CHEO
Anti-stigma programs, commissioned by Mood Disorders Society of Canada
Understanding mental illness, an overview by Canadian Mental Health Ass.
Suicide, an overview by Canadian Mental Health Association

For help with mental illness (Canada):
http://www.miaw.ca/en/mental-illness/need_help.aspx

Note: edited for additional clarity and links on July 8, 2009.

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2 Comments

Filed under Headlines, Media

2 responses to “Suicide in the news

  1. Trish

    Wow. So true. Even those who say they understand the challenges of mental illness don’t necessarily. Even for those of us who’ve lived with a family member with mental illness, this is a tough sell. We want others to understand –so very much, in part because we realize that mental illness can befall any one of us, especially those of us that hit that bad gene. But we also battle with the shame, embarrassment, confusion of having watched from the outside as our loved one spun, or hid out or wanted to die. We wanted to understand and we wanted it to go away.

    My wish for myself is that acceptance of mental illness allows me to let go of my fear. For me, full acceptance will come from losing the fear that I’ll be its next unsuspecting victim.

    Fear of getting cancer will never have the same grip on me as this one does.

    • coffeewithjulie

      Thank you for these valuable comments Trish. Your comment that cancer does not inspire the same fear in you as mental illness is especially thought-provoking for me.

      It reminds me of something someone once said about the obituaries: when you battle cancer you are noted as having “fought a courageous battle against cancer,” which you utlimately lost. But when you lose-out against mental illness and succumb to suicide, you “died suddenly.” Rather than being courageous, the suggestion is that you are “weak,” so weak in fact that your battle is not even named.

      I’m not sure if society will ever fully come around to understanding mental illness and the battle that an individual does truly fight against it, but it is one of my greatest hopes that we will.

      Also, as an important aside, the stats show that there are less suicides in the Canadian Forces than in the rest of the population. In fact, there are far more suicides within the physician population. But we don’t hear about that, do we?

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