By Andrew Torry
Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in Canada. Every year about 3,500 people commit suicide across the country, hundreds of those within Alberta. Suicide is a vast public health problem that tragically impacts the lives of too many individuals and families.
There is stigma attached to suicide. Many cultural and societal attitudes mark suicide with disgrace. Such attitudes can cause people contemplating suicide to internalize their pain and steer clear of seeking help for fear of judgment. The shame of suicide often stems from a poor understanding of suicide’s underlying risk factors.
The vast majority of suicides in Canada and around the world are connected to mental illness; one study put the figure at roughly 87%. These include illnesses
like schizophrenia, personality disorders, and mood disorders like depression or anxiety. Further, the risk of suicide is aggravated by substance abuse; 50% of suicides have some relation to substance abuse, and 25% of suicides are committed by persons with drug addictions or alcoholism.
Like suicide, there is also an incredible stigma attached to mental illness. Consequently, many persons hide their mental illness and don’t seek proper treatment, which aggravates their condition. Many choose to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, which lead sufferers to endure their ailment in further isolation. Ironically, the stigmas associated with suicide and its underlying risk factors only compound the problem.
It is important then to reduce the incidence of suicide by combating the stigma it often carries in our society. Suicide Prevention Awareness Week aims to raise awareness of suicide as a sweeping public health concern. Educating the public on the causes and risk factors of suicide is an excellent way to reduce its mark of disgrace. If we want persons contemplating suicide to make themselves vulnerable by seeking help and receiving treatment, they need to feel safe from judgment.
Further, if the majority of suicides occur with underlying mental illness and substance abuse, then it is critical that we reduce any feelings of shame people may endure when they access mental health and substance abuse services. This can be accomplished in numerous ways, such as sharing positive stories of survival in the media and the entertainment industry. Such actions may inspire persons to access services that will help reduce the severity of suicidal risk factors.
Finally, it is also paramount that we eliminate barriers to mental health and substance abuse services. Increased access to these services improves the quality of treatment for mental illnesses and substance abuse, and further lessens the likelihood of suicide.
The stigmas associated with suicide, mental illness and substance abuse result from a lack of education and the persistence of misconceptions. The more informed the public is about suicide, as well as mental illness and substance abuse, the more we can attend to this public health problem in realistic and effective ways.