As governments lift COVID-19 restrictions only to re-implement them to flatten the curve of cases to ensure the health care system’s stability, we find ourselves, once again, isolated in uncertainty. Whether it is the fear of catching the virus, financial stress, wider economic precarity, or the pain of losing loved ones, the pandemic’s existential weight is also flattening our mental well-being. These anxieties, fears, and pains all existed well before the COVID-19 pandemic, but over the past two years they have become exacerbated and threaten to corner us in our isolation—we might feel there is no way out of this seemingly unending situation. It is this feeling of terrorizing entrapment that leads many to think about and consider suicide. As David Foster Wallace writes, “The person in whom [life’s] invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise.”
During the pandemic, two people in my life died by suicide. It was the early days of the stay-at-home-orders and travel restrictions when my uncle could not travel for work. He was a migrant worker, who would travel to Germany to do physical labour for better wages. Though he was often quiet, he told me that he enjoyed visiting new places. It was hard work, he said, but after his shift, he looked forward to eating dinner with a view of the Elbe river from his shared house. Suddenly, he was not allowed to travel and could not work because of the pandemic. Immediate and extended family was willing to financially support him, but the stress of unemployment caused a relapse of addiction. Isolated at home without a job and trapped in a bottle, he began making comments about death and suicide, but the prevailing stigma dismissed them: “Oh, you’ve had too much, again”; “Don’t say such things, it’s a sin!”; “Stop threatening us.” These refrains went on for some time. Then, one night, when his daughter left him alone for a bit to check on the neighbours, he died. The cycle of socioeconomic pressures, relapses, and the ubiquitous unease surrounding conversations about suicide produce an unhealthy, even inescapable, predicament for those who struggle with suicidal ideation.
In Canada, the precarity and isolation caused by the lockdowns have had a significant impact on mental well-being, especially for the country’s youth. The Mental Health Commission of Canada and the Canadian Centre on Substances Use and Addiction recently released a report underlining the growing issues Canadian youth face in the tumult of the pandemic. Young people reported drastically higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation than the general population. The rate of suicidal ideation among young Canadians was nearly double the general population, and eight times higher than that of older Canadians. Another alarming trend shows a marked increase in substance use in Canadian youth, who have been consuming more alcohol and cannabis to help cope with the pandemic’s fallout; the pandemic has also had a frightening impact on drug overdoses. Despite numerous resources available to those in need and a recent shift in attitudes, the stigma about suicide, substance use, and depression still exists, muting important conversations with family, friends, and (when one has the means and privilege) professionals. As for the country’s future, young Canadians themselves feel they cannot imagine a future beyond the pandemic and its myriad of economic, political, and social repercussions, which have made a good life appear unattainable, if not impossible.
Such stories and information cast the problem of suicide as a lonely and harrowing experience, but the truth is everyone one of us has the capacity to change the existing discourse. While statistics provide us with important, tangible information we can use to understand and model the problems we face, the change we wish to realize begins with our day-to-day lives. In as much as external stressors and circumstances contribute to our internal crises, the language we use to understand and communicate these experiences also plays a vital role in our ability to navigate life’s extremes. Interpreting and further internalizing these thoughts and feelings through a singular language of guilt and shame isolates us. We must remember our experiences are rarely singular. One of the immediate ways we can address suicide, whether on campus or in the community, is opening up spaces for difficult, but important conversations—where we can share our stories, our pain, and ourselves with friends, peers, and others. Many other people are living similar stories to ours; and it is in the exchange of listening and sharing we realize that we are not completely alone. In the hopes of initiating such discussions, I reached out to members of the Toronto mental health community to share their thoughts and experiences with suicide.
Asante Haughton is a Training Manager in Peer Development at Stella’s Place in Toronto. He is also a mental health advocate. Asante has shared his thoughts about the mindset of suicide and the stigma associated with it:
Unfortunately, suicide is still hard for many to understand. It is often maligned as a selfish and cowardly act. However, it is quite the opposite. Those who have the desire to take their own lives are not trying to take the easy way out, they are trying to take what they see as the only way. These folks often have endured an overwhelming amount of suffering that has taken over every aspect of their conscious and subconscious lives. In addition, these folks have also tried really hard to find a way out, to no avail. So then, the only options left are to continue suffering with no hope in sight or to end the suffering by ending their own lives. When folks who want to take their own lives approach that fateful decision they often feel a sense of guilt, knowing the impact their death will have on their loved ones—but their own personal suffering is too great to continue, even for the sake of those they love. And this is how people who are enduring immense pain arrive at the decision to take their own lives. If we want to help them then we must remove the stigma that suicide is selfish, cowardly or shameful since those sentiments only work to create more motivation for the person suffering to remain silent. Instead, we need to make suicide an open conversation—not about suicidal people but with suicidal people—so that we can work to understand a suffering person’s experience and how to improve it. This will take a great attitudinal shift in our society, but when this shift happens we will be better at supporting those experiencing suicidal ideation. And we will save lives.
Kevin Healey is a Health Promoter and a Hearing Voices Support Worker at the Inner City Family Health Team. He is also the founder and operator of RecoveryNetwork: Toronto. Kevin has shared his experiences and thoughts about suicide as an expression of pain:
Suicide is about pain, feeling suicidal, thinking about it and trying not to think about it, wanting to talk about it and not being able to, planning, attempting, acting, and the aftermath – is all about pain. Edwin Schneidman coined the term psyche-ache, soul ache if you like, the pain associated with deeply-felt unmet psychological needs.
To adapt a sentence from David Foster Wallace, “The suicidal person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror.”
I’ve known many people who died by suicide, who made the painful, lonely decision that it was time to end their own life. Friends, colleagues, and also three bosses (let that be a warning to you ambitious folks). I’ve also more than once been at the point where I thought it was time to end my own, and I’ve talked with countless others who shared that they thought and felt they were at that point.
Suicide is one of the hardest conversations to start. The hardest conversation because no one wants to hear, because not many have learned how to listen, yet we all can learn how.
As David Webb puts it, “we need to move beyond the question of whether we talk about it and towards how we talk about it.”
We’re immersed in an orthodoxy that says only mental health professionals can have these conversations but there will never be enough professionals to do the work. And, besides, professionals have trapped themselves in the role of gatekeepers, locked in rigid protocols of assessing risk, attending first to their need to assure themselves we’re not going to die on their watch (or their employer’s liability insurance) and overriding our need to be heard, understood, and felt.
In a dozen years of working in peer support roles, I’ve learned the importance of being able to create spaces in which [we] can talk about powerful feelings including feelings, thoughts, and the urge to die.
There are some successful approaches out there. Here are two of them: Alternatives to Suicide support groups (https://wildfloweralliance.org/event/alternatives-to-suicide-group-facilitator-training-on-line-multi-day/) and Suicide as a Language of Pain (https://dochub.clackamas.us/documents/drupal/54364dc6-0408-4104-af07-28b8570313d2). There are others and we need many more.
Much of the trouble we’ve made - which only we can unmake - is the language we use to frame and talk about suicide, a language of judgment that casts it as “sinning-before-god.”
So, I offer you this, if you want to make a contribution to changing the landscape and a simple take away that you can start right away, make a choice now to stop using the word “commit” or “committed” in the same sentence as the word suicide.
The more we share our voices and open up spaces in which we can communicate, the sense of isolation will slowly begin to wane. Though we have no control over the future, we are in the present together.
If you are in distress, or experiencing intense suicidal ideation, please reach out to the services listed below:
Spectra Helpline: 416 920-0497 or 905 459-7777 for Brampton and Mississauga residents
TTY: 905 278-4890; Languages: English, Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Spanish, Portuguese
Community Crisis Line Scarborough and Rouge Hospital, https://www.shn.ca/mental-health/crisis-support/: 416 495-2891 for 24/7 telephone crisis support. Service borders: south to the lake, north to Steeles Avenue, east to Port Union Road, and west to Victoria Park
Edited by Jeffrey Lynham & Curtis D'Hollander
Schneider, Edwin. The Suicidal Mind. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996.