Volume 91, Issue 69
Friday, January 30, 1998
When the pain is too much: The facts and fiction of suicide
©Photo by Sam Pane
By Carolyn Wong
Discussing suicide is a tragic and taboo subject many people face with difficulty, if they can confront it at all. But as difficult and painful coping with suicide can be, learning about what motivates someone especially youth to take their own life, can be an essential part of prevention.
Reasons behind suicide and suicide attempts are often misconstrued. There are several different reasons why young people commit such a drastic act. Jan Bainbridge, a public health nurse at the London Middlesex Health Unit, says employment issues and loss of a person, relationship or stability and security are the main reasons she has seen. "As of the past five years, employment issues have become more of a dominant reason behind suicide attempts," she adds.
Bonnie Williams, development coordinator of the Canadian Mental Health Association says recent research has suggested school-related pressures and stress are also major factors. Students who have moved away from home and are experiencing social isolation in their new university or college environment, suffer tremendous stress which could lead to suicide provided that the individual is not able to cope with the strain and tension, Williams explains.
Adding to the list of many factors, Bruce Connell, a consulting psychologist for the Thames Valley District School Board and professor for a course on suicide at King's College, sees psychological pain as the main reason. When the emotional pain hurts so much, the individual can no longer tolerate it and sees killing themselves as the only way of escape, he says. This psychological pain is caused when one lacks the feeling of self-worth or feels there is no one who truly loves and cares about them, he adds.
Unfortunately, once a suicide has occurred, it is too late to fully understand why. However, there are ways of trying to piece together the mystery that suicide creates by performing psychological autopsies. Connell says these "autopsies" occur mostly in British Columbia and Alberta and involve searching and analyzing suicide notes as well as questioning the victim's family and friends in relation to why the suicide may have occurred.
Very often, when a suicide has failed, it's a cry for help. These are referred to as gestures. An example of a gesture is when a young girl, who swallows a small amount of pills at home and in the company of her parents, Connell explains. This is an obvious indication the girl is troubled and requires help, but she doesn't necessarily want to die. She simply wants to communicate to her loved ones that she wants help.
"These gestures, while not fatal, should never be overlooked," Connell says. "They must be taken seriously before they become fatal acts of suicide."
Williams says the most important thing for a person who is contemplating suicide to realize is there are many sources of help and to contact someone as soon as possible.
The current suicide rate, which has leveled off, is 12-15 per 100,000 people; still a rather scary statistic. Fortunately, there hasn't been an increase in the past eight years, says Williams.
"We still have a long way to go because one death is one death too many."
The effects of magnifying celebrity suicides can also be major influence on media watchers, especially the younger audience. When a celebrity commits suicide, it has a small influence on people who are already contemplating suicide; sometimes acting as a trigger.
"People feel they are given permission to end their lives and emulate celebrities who have done the same," says Williams.
This is called the Werther effect a concept dating back to the 1600s which targets vulnerable teens who tend to idolize high-profile people, Margaret Steele, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the London Health Sciences Centre, explains. Recent examples include the overwhelming reponses to the Kurt Cobain and Michael Hutchence suicides.
Although any suicide is a tragedy, celebrity suicides tend to be highly publicized and the media somehow creates hype that draws the attention of many people. High-profile people are also now more willing to speak to the public about their depression, or their troubles with drugs or alcohol, Connell says.
"These people have such an influence on the general public, as role models," he adds. "They are making more people realize it is important to discuss mental health problems and to acquire assistance.
"Overall, there is hope for reducing the suicide rate, because there is so much that we can do to educate people and to assist people," Connell says. "Society needs to continue to talk more openly about this issue, to be more willing to acknowledge that a problem exists and to make more people aware of the endless resources that they can turn to in times of need."
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