Volume 92, Issue 60

Thursday, January 14, 1999



Suicide: When the unthinkable becomes possible

Suicide: When the unthinkable becomes possible

By Jean-Paul Seguin
Gazette Writer

Pressure is an immutable aspect of university life. In an environment where high levels of stress are the norm, there will always be an equally high risk of people contemplating drastic methods of escape and what was once unthinkable can become a possibility.

Although suicide is a leading cause of death in young adults, statistics on suicide at Western are difficult to determine. Although, according to the University Police Department there have been few suicides among students. This information, however, may not be complete. "The only suicide attempts that really come to our attention are the ones where ambulances are required to attend," says Const. Wendy McGowan of the UPD.

Insp. David Lucio of London police was skeptical about the possibility of isolating student statistics from the city's data on suicide as a computer search, defining Western students by age and location of residence, is bound to yield unsatisfactory results. "I don't think you would be able to grab an accurate number at all, no matter how you went about it," Lucio concludes.

Added to these difficulties in pinpointing numbers is the more contentious problem of determining whether a suicide has in fact occurred. In cases where the cause of death is doubtful, police and coroners are unlikely to rule it a suicide to avoid the further trauma it would place on family and friends. "There are the ones that we just don't know about," Lucio says. "People just die and you don't know what the cause is, it's undetermined."

As heartening as these low campus mortality figures may seem, there is concern that they fail to reflect the actual number of suicide attempts and stress-related deaths which occur at Western. After all, increasing economic hardship, competitiveness and class sizes are changing the nature of education and student life.

As a counsellor for psychological services at Western's Student Development Centre, Jack Russel has daily encounters with people traumatized by rising levels of stress. "We get a lot of crisis appointments," Russel says. "Students who just can't cope with the workload, can't cope with the pressures."

Because suicide is the second or third leading cause of death among 18 to 24-year-olds, Russel encourages students to seek help as soon as they begin to feel something is wrong. "My experience has been that as much as we would love to have students come earlier, prior to the problem becoming more serious, it's just our natural tendency to try to solve it on our own."

Although severe stress at university is often the direct result of exam and deadline pressures, Russel points out it is important to recognize academic problems can precipitate or prompt a whole series of other issues.

"Sometimes the environment that is potentially stressful can exacerbate problems," Russel says. "It can make what might have been a small problem before, all of the sudden mushroom into a giant problem."

Inexplicably, some people are simply better at pulling through problems than others. "What enables some students to be able to cope with a problem, when other students can't cope? Why is it that some become so disturbed and so upset and so unhappy and so hopeless, that suicide is an option and yet others who have incredible, enormous problems manage to cope?" Russel asks.

"It's such an individual issue. A lot of it has to do with optimism and pessimism, hopelessness and hopefulness."

At the London and District Distress Centre, executive director Judy Melville oversees a team of volunteers who take calls 24 hours a day from people in trouble.

"We get calls throughout the year from students, particularly in November and the early parts of December and then in February and March," Melville says. "We get a fair number of calls from students who are really stressed out; some are contemplating suicide. They are feeling hopeless and isolated and the pressures of school are closing in on them. And so we help them through those rough periods."

Some 60 per cent of the calls the centre receives from students are suicide related, as opposed to four per cent of their total calls. Melville has found some of the recent changes in education and employment are not helping matters. "I think it's less personal at university than it used to be," she says. "There's a general sense of hopelessness and despair in terms of jobs. To finish school knowing that you're thirty or forty thousand dollars in debt and then you can't get a job – now that's pretty stressful."

Academic and financial matters, however, are not always foremost in the minds of students who phone in. "A lot of young people commit suicide over losses – a death or a relationship ending," Melville says. "They're away from home, they feel isolated, everybody else is partying and they can't really go and dump their crappy feelings on somebody. This exacerbates their sense of isolation and the stress of the school work is just too much.

"The most valuable service a friend can provide a potentially suicidal friend is welcoming her or him to talk about their feelings. It's how you say it. It's not just the saying of it," Melville explains. "Show that you're open to them.

"Usually, people who actually complete suicide have tried to talk about it with about 15 people prior to actually doing it. And many times, they just get shut down."

Melville believes that confronting and talking about the realities of suicide would take us a step toward understanding and avoiding some of the dangers. "Seven out of 10 Canadians contemplate suicide at some point in their lives. The reality of suicide is that it is such a taboo subject in our society.

"If so many of us have contemplated suicide at some point in our lives, why aren't we talking about it?" she asks.

Dogged by our society's relentless exhortations to be happy, people often lose sight of the fact that uncertainty, doubt, fear and sadness play an important a role in human well-being. "I think the whole situation with suicide epitomizes the dysfunction in our society," says Melville. "In most families you can't honestly talk about your feelings."

"The thing about suicide is that everybody's ambivalent about it, so if you don't talk about it, how can you sift and sort through those ambivalences?"

Successes, no matter how temporary or uncertain, are what keep people going. They are what help motivate Melville and the rest of the Distress Centre's staff when situations look bleak – just one success is all it takes to change the face of fading hope.

"A couple of weeks ago, we had a call from a young man, around 30, who had a gun and was ready to blow his brains out. I mean, he was ready. He had just lost his job and it turned out that a relationship had failed a week or two before," Melville recalls.

For nearly an hour, a volunteer spoke and empathized with the man, eventually persuading him to empty the bullets and put the gun away.

"Last week, the man called to thank the volunteer who had been working then, because he was really glad he hadn't done it. A few days later, life didn't seem so bad," Melville said.

– Between 1988 and 1992, the Canadian suicide rate has been higher than that of the United States – 13 per 100,000 people vs. the U.S. rate of 12 per 100,000.

– There have been on average 3,500 suicide deaths per year over the last 15 years.

– There are approximately four male suicides per female suicide.

– Young males in general are at high risk, while young aboriginal males in some areas of Canada are at very high risk for suicide.

– The Canadian population has more than doubled between 1950 and 1995. The number of suicides have tripled in the same time period.

– In Canada and abroad, females attempt suicide at a higher rate than males, though males generally use a more lethal method in their attempts and therefore have a higher mortality rate.

– Men are apt to use firearms, hanging; women more often use drug overdoses. Asphyxiation is common in both groups.

– In 1993 there were 3,419 traffic deaths in Canada, while there were 3,803 suicides.

– Warning signs include changes in personality or habits, depression, hopelessness, helplessness, inability to enjoy life, substance abuse and statements about ending life.

– Source: Suicide Information and Education Centre

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Copyright The Gazette 1999