There was a time when Dillon W. Hausauer, a Covenant Health employee, attempted to take her life.
“One day, in a desire to feel relief [from months of poor mental health], I took handfuls of sleeping medication,” says Dillon. “People have since asked me what I was thinking when I did that. The problem is that I was in a haze and wasn’t thinking. I couldn’t think. My desire to escape my daily hell was greater than the fear of death.”
Dillon is not alone. According to Health Canada, more than 10 Canadians die by suicide every day, and a much higher number attempt suicide. Suicide is a serious public health problem, but it is preventable with the right strategies. September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day, a day dedicated to increasing awareness of suicide and providing resources to those who are struggling with their mental health.
The first step to prevention is debunking some common misconceptions about suicide, says Scott Aylwin, Covenant Health’s senior director of mental health. These misconceptions could be major barriers for those who are struggling to reach out and seek help when they need it.
“When we teach mental health first aid, one of the most important points we reinforce is that you don’t have to be a trained professional to help someone who’s struggling,” says Scott. “In many, many cases, the most important and most effective help isn’t the professional kind — it’s the people in one’s immediate orbit, the powerful frontline support system of friends, family and colleagues. Simply being kind, receptive, open and patient are extremely important attributes to someone in your life who needs your support. And you may not even know the positive influence you can have simply by being this type of person.”
One major reason those who are considering death by suicide avoid reaching out for help is that suicide is stigmatized as selfish and cowardly. But Dillon says the idea that suicide is selfish is “shortsighted and untrue.”
“When you suffer for so long, your cognitive abilities have become so impaired that you act out of desperation rather than logic,” says Dillon. “You aren’t considering the magnitude of the impact you’ll have on those around you; you aren’t capable of that. Those who are capable of logical thinking and considering their loved ones step back from the ledge. Those who go through with it have lost this ability.”
Research shows that for every suicide victim there are about seven to 10 survivors who are significantly affected by the loss. So what should you do if you suspect someone you care about is struggling?
Scott recommends having an open conversation about suicide, and he advises against subscribing to the belief that this may do more harm than good.
“There’s a myth that talking about suicide with someone you think may be struggling will plant the idea in their head. This simply isn’t true and can stop supportive family or friends from reaching out.
“If you ask, ‘I’m a bit concerned about you right now. Are you thinking about harming yourself?,’ the person may say no, but at least you’ve opened a door for them so that they know you’re comfortable having such a conversation. If they share that they have been thinking of self-harm, the question probably comes as a relief and you can have remarkably candid conversations about these thoughts. These unfiltered conversations can be incredibly impactful in making the vulnerable individual feel like they have options and aren’t alone.”
It’s also important to be direct and not skirt the topic, says Dillon. Asking someone “are you okay?” might seem helpful, but it is too vague and doesn’t necessarily make the vulnerable individual feel safe discussing suicidal ideation or intent with you. Being direct and non-judgmental lets the individual know you’re prepared to have that conversation and that they are welcome to discuss their feelings freely with you.
“Despite what some may think, simply reaching out for help isn’t an easy thing to do if you’re struggling,” Dillon says. “In order to reach out and ask for the help you need, you need to be okay with being very vulnerable. It’s scary and feels shameful. Sometimes it can be a relief to have someone bridge that gap for you.”
If you don’t have someone in your life that you believe is struggling or considering suicide, there are still steps we can all take to prevent suicide at a societal level. Talking about suicide as a disease, not a choice, and being empathetic to the mental health struggles of others can go a long way toward breaking down the stigma surrounding mental health challenges and suicide.
“The inclination [in our society] is to hide your pain and struggles,” says Dillon. “It’s taboo, shameful, weak. But comments you make can greatly affect those around you, especially those you don’t know are struggling. Be careful what you say and how you say it, especially when discussing mental health or suicide, but don’t avoid the topic entirely.”
Dillon offers some words of advice for anyone who might be suffering with depression and/or considering suicide.
“Understanding yourself, naming your feelings and becoming familiar with your triggers are some of the most important things you can do,” she says. “Seek counselling, take advantage of resources, reach out to someone you can trust and recognize that you don’t have to suffer in silence. Shame and isolation can be major barriers to seeking help, but shame grows in the dark, and that’s where we lose the ability to reach out for help when we need it.”
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