06/28/2012 03:14 EDT | Updated 08/28/2012 05:12 EDT

Let's Talk About Suicide

There have been two recent suicides in our small community, which I find distressing. When a suicide happens we usually learn about it from the local whispering network, but rarely from the news. The reason is obvious: local media still protect surviving families from guilt or shame. Suicide is too common, yet preventable, and the the subject is still taboo.

We Are The Youth

If you've lost a close friend or family member to suicide, you might not want to read on. It is already painful enough without this.

There have been two recent suicides in our small community, which I find distressing. When a suicide happens we usually learn about it from the local whispering network, but rarely from the news. The reason is obvious: local media still protect surviving families from guilt or shame.

More people die as a result of suicide than in all transportation-related deaths in Canada. Ten Canadians commit suicide every day. But in remote areas such as Canada's Arctic, suicide rates are up to five times higher than in the south. Among young people under the age of 25, five times as many males kill themselves as do females. And an unspecified number of suicides go undocumented every year, so real statistics are impossible to find.

But frankly I don't care about the statistics. I do care that suicide is too common, yet preventable, and that the subject is still taboo, though perhaps for a good reason. Suicide is an infectious disease.

I was a teenager buying a car when I first learned this. A mother was selling it because her son had hanged himself. He was also the best friend of a kid who lived across the street from me and who, within a month, would also hang himself.

A few years later I was talking to a guy at a party. His wife was drinking too much and he mentioned that she always "got this way" so I asked him what he meant. He lowered his voice and told me about going home one evening and finding their daughter hanging in the garage. She was their only child, and they never got over it. Eventually, they divorced.

Health Canada describes suicide as a mental illness. Maybe it is. The website lists some factors leading to suicide which include pressure to succeed, abuse, depression (and other mental illnesses), financial trouble, sexual identity issues, difficulty fitting in to society, loss of a family member early in life, a family history of suicide, and so on.

The list seems suspiciously like what we all face to some degree. Somewhat glibly, the Health Canada website acknowledges what one needs to avoid suicide: a resilient personality, self-control, a sense of humour, good social supports and at least one good relationship. Well, I guess.

But what if one doesn't have those particular assets?

Given that 60 per cent of us are only a few paycheques away from financial meltdown, if we lost our jobs, what happens next? Does an already shaky marriage survive? Does the banker forgive our debts? Good people don't normally show up when bad things happen. In fact, quite the opposite. Personal trouble is a social repellent. The poor and suffering rarely have friends, despite Christian notions.

And the ones who suffer the most are usually the sensitive ones: the thinkers and the artists and the ones who know that they're strange and different. These are the social misfits who are least likely to be financially successful.

For some people the suicide takes years rather than minutes. My brother's friend is currently doing this. He wakes up alone. He goes to work. He comes home and drinks until he passes out. Every day begins and ends the same way. I saw him a few years ago. He looked exactly as you might imagine.

Which brings me to the here and now. Lately, people in our neighbourhood seem to be committing suicide at a much higher rate than the national average -- 14 per 100,000 people. That's not good. And there are some other bad indicators that add to the problem.

Easy access to mental health care here is abysmal. Illegal prescription drug use is rampant. Job opportunities are sketchy at best. Financial problems are common with many people depending on EI. Food banks are overwhelmed in winter. Domestic abuse and petty crime is endemic. Additionally, some employers consider the local population to be lazy, stupid and not worth employing, and thus look to immigration to solve their employment problems.

And on top of all that, there's that pleasant old East Coast Loyalist culture of ostracizing and shunning, and the desire for harsh punishment (which on the islands includes house burning) that is particularly hard on the people at the so-called bottom. All one can say to that, is thank God there are one or two gentler souls in the legal system who can and do soften the blows.

So why am I writing about this? Because suicide in our communities is the canary in the coal mine. It is telling us that our local societies, not to mention our provincial and federal societies, are sick and need treatment, if we are ever to improve the lot of those most at risk of suicide.

I'm talking about the people who are the most affected by your ongoing ridicule and rejection. Unless we teach our children (and ourselves) to be more open, tolerant and socially equal at home, no amount of pink shirt wearing at school will stop the next generation of suicides.

We might begin by working toward a goal of building a more fully engaged, fully employed creative society in this country -- and end this destructive, unspoken competition separating us into tops and bottom, winners and losers.

And given our unhealthy cultural obsession with competitiveness, vanity and vitality, it's telling that men over 80 years of age have the highest suicide rates of all.