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Friday, November 20, 2009

Stigma of Suicide

There is a very powerful piece in today's Edmonton Journal. It's about the suicide of Alex Wedman, a 17 year old boy who committed suicide last year after being the victim of ongoing bullying, and how his experience relates to the stigma associated with depression and suicide. It even touches on masculinity. I highly encourage you to read the entire piece here.

Some pieces that really jumped out at me:

The family has been for counselling, though Eric has refused so far. So typical of young men to bury their feelings. Alex did that, too. But it is a hallmark of depression to withdraw and isolate. Just as it is a rule for children, especially boys, to not tattle.

Bullying thrives in silence. But so does suicide. Consciously and unconsciously we've taught our children that suicide is too taboo, too scary, to even mention.

We fear that talking about a person's suicide will inspire copy cats. If we talk about it, the thinking goes, other kids, our kids, might see it as a chance to go out in a blaze of glory.

Yet the hush perpetuates the shame and isolation. How can we expect a suicidal kid to reach out when the over-riding message from us is that suicide is too shameful to talk about?

We have come to believe a lie: That suicide is a failing of character in dysfunctional people or their families. Mental illness is still the subject of so much stigma, though depression is a near epidemic in North America.

Alberta leads the country in suicides, with 473 recorded in 2007.

The statistics are believed to be greatly under-reported for a number of reasons, including stigma.


It is tempting to cast blame in this story. Some school officials failed Alex Wedman. But their attitudes --turning a blind eye, or refusing to see the peril--reflect those of society.

The article was written by Scott Mckeen. I am not an overly avid reader of the newspaper but I do generally enjoy his articles. It is clear that the writing of this article has personal meaning for him as well.

The rational mind doesn't understand. But as someone who has suffered a deep clinical depression, I get it. I still can't find the words to describe the sheer hopelessness--the mental agony and physical woodenness--of deep depression. That's why I feel so strongly that we must talk openly about suicide. We must sit down with our children and discuss it without alarm. Let them know that depression and suicidal thoughts aren't shameful, but common. They are a sign, like physical pain, that we need to do something for our health.

As someone who only in the past year has been diagnosed with and seek treatment for mental illness this is very close to me. Because of my political leanings, so to speak, it was only shortly after getting out of the worst of it that I was ready to call out the stigma of mental illness. Because it was, and is, so new to me there're still times when I do feel ashamed. But talking honestly about mental illness, with everyone from loved ones to strangers on the internet, can be a productive first step. So is seeking the help of professionals, which also has a huge stigma attached.

My thoughts are with Alex's family and with other teens who are suffering from depression or victims of harassment.

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