04/26/2016 12:08 EDT | Updated 04/27/2017 05:12 EDT

Let's Talk About Suicide Precisely Because It Makes Us Uncomfortable

Next week is mental health week and as we talk about mental health, I want us to take the time to talk about suicide. To many, suicide is a scary word, forbidden from their vocabulary. We're scared to talk about it because we don't know what the implications are.

Adam Petto via Getty Images
Homeless young man sitting in subway tunnel.

Next week is mental health week and as we talk about mental health, I want us to take the time to talk about suicide. To many, suicide is a scary word, forbidden from their vocabulary. We're scared to talk about it because we don't know what the implications are.

Can we talk about it with people who have experienced suicide in their family? Can we talk to high school students about suicide? Do we say committed suicide or lost their life to suicide?

Today 11 people will end their own lives and 210 will attempt to end their lives . Eleven people will die, and 77 to 110 people will have to live with the hurt and pain of losing a loved one to suicide. I have lived with anxiety and met many people who live with different mental health problems, but I had never met anyone with first-hand experience with suicide.

When we decided to write about suicide and talk to people and families impacted by it, we were a little scared. What would others think? How uncomfortable were we going to make them? Well, I'm writing this article to make us uncomfortable. Suicide is not and should not be taken lightly.

We interviewed mothers, sisters and classmates of people who lost their lives to suicide. We interviewed people who survived and are now talking about suicide, they want us to know it's preventable. A sister who lost her brother recently said she was still in shock of "how is this still happening?" We also interviewed the head of the suicide task force for suicide in Ontario. Dr. Ian Dawe talked about the steps Ontario is taking towards reducing suicide numbers.

"You can't have any mental health conversation without addressing stigma."--Dr.Ian Dawe

Dr.Dawe believes that the most damaging part of stigma is the misinformation that recovery is not possible. The way we talk about mental health recovery or the lack thereof leads many to believe they are stuck. That their state is permanent and they will always stay this way.

"It's a very human reaction, all of us in crisis will think this way. It's called black and white thinking; it's either this or it's that. The very nature of distress is that it's isolating and in that isolation it preys on itself to create this ever narrowing circle of connections. A mental health illness is not in any way a death bed," he says.

The situation can change and it's just a matter of educating everyone and providing the right tools and skills. It was made clear throughout our interviews that stigma is not the only barrier; identifying and realizing the problem is an issue as well. Many people don't know they need help, they don't know the signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety or insomnia. It's the not knowing that can hurt people in the long term; when is the right time to seek help?

I asked Dr. Dawe about ways of getting the message to the right person at the right time. His response was similar to how many entrepreneurs and business people would have answered this question:

"With the help of marketing professionals, just look at how the elections are happening in the south. There are strong ways of getting the message out effectively. We need to use social media effectively to get into the school systems -- public, private and also postsecondary. We need to be communicating broadly enough to reach people not just while in the middle of distress but pre-distress so that when they fall into these situations they know what to do."

It's about having the right skills, and being able to utilize those skills to live life the way it's meant to be lived.

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention (CASP) defines three stages when discussing suicide; prevention, intervention and postvention. Education and awareness is a key part of prevention, the stage that most attempts can be averted at.

The task force is working to implement a model called the "Zero Suicide" prevention plan. In Michigan, this model resulted in 80 per cent reduction in suicidal behaviors and completed suicide. They successfully got to zero for four years running. It's based on many of quality improvement models used in engineering and manufacturing to remove bottlenecks.

"As a system, the only way to make change is to decide to make a change," says Dr. Dawe. He described a zero-suicide prevention plan as "Making sure that every single person who comes to the hospital is screened for suicidal ideation, and if they are suicidal they get transitioned in a careful and expedient way. The care is not just a one-time hospitalization, but part of a long-term continuity of care because being in the hospital is not enough to treat suicidality."

This is just the beginning of this conversation for us, every week we will introduce a suicide story on the TranQool blog. We believe in prevention, we believe in the right to live happy and healthy lives. We believe taking care of our emotional health is just as important as taking care of your physical health.

At a speaking engagement, the inspiring Zahra Al-Harazi told the audience that her final piece of advice would be to "understand who you are and get to know your strengths and weaknesses. You need to do that to find your calling."

We are not born with the skills needed to deal with life's challenges. Asking for help, wanting to know yourself and looking for what makes you happy is the best gift you can give yourself.

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