Brand building through storytelling

4000 lives we shouldn’t be losing

This morning I asked myself how many people in my circle had been touched by the suicide of someone dear to them. Without even trying, I counted 12 names. One woman was the last person to see her closest friend alive. Another had to bury her teenage son. A third, from a family that’s been ravaged more than once by suicide, now fears for her kids. The specifics vary; the constant is the distinctive, isolating anguish borne by those who know their loved ones chose to die too soon—and will never stop asking why.

So I was heartened to read that new Canadian research is closing in on some answers. The brains of depressed people who killed themselves differ strikingly from other brains, according to an article at Scientific American’s informative website. The depressed brains have an unusual distribution of receptors for a particular neurotransmitter. Intriguingly, it’s not genes themselves that are to blame, but rather stressful life experiences affecting how certain genes are expressed. These studies raise the hope that one day it will be possible to identify high-risk people and treat them with drugs that might save their lives.

Every year suicide claims 4000 Canadians and 30,000 Americans. In two-thirds of cases the cause is depression, a treatable illness that can morph into a cancer of the soul unless help arrives in time. Too often it does not, so entrenched is the stigma that surrounds all afflictions of the mind. I know a woman who turned to a friend after a failed suicide attempt. Her friend said, “Everyone has troubles. You just caved in.”

This woman’s shame has deep cultural roots. In the Middle Ages, a suicide attempt was a capital crime. Those who succeeded were disgraced in death, their heads placed on pikes and their bodies thrown to animals. We’re more enlightened today: we allow church funerals for people who took their own lives. But death notices still use the code word “suddenly.” Every so often, with astonishing frankness, a family dares to tell the truth: their loved one “died of depression.”

Far too many of the lost are shockingly young. They should have years of productive life ahead. Years in which to build, lead, nurture and create; to learn and share their learning. When homegrown talent leaves Canada for other countries, opinion leaders lament the “brain drain.” Meanwhile the suicide brain drain continues year after year—hardly noticed, except by the stricken survivors.

“She had everything to live for,” people say. Or “If only he knew how greatly he was loved.” I share the astonishment and yet, in a way, I understand the grim choice to leave this world. I remember how it feels to ask, “Why am I living?” and “Do I deserve to be here?” In my 30s, at the low point of a years-long struggle with chronic depression, I began to fantasize about bathtubs and razor blades. I tried to tough it out on my own, afraid that if I couldn’t I had to be world-class wimp. What eventually pushed me into treatment was knowing how my suicide would ravage my family. Now here I am, a more or less happy woman, speaking her mind about the saddest subject there is: depression and its terminal stage.

When I first recovered from cancer of the soul, I’d look back on my dark days and think of everything I’d missed. The fun I didn’t have, the adventures I didn’t pursue, the contributions I didn’t have the energy to make. Now I realize that if not for depression, I wouldn’t be the woman I am today. I wouldn’t be able to speak for those still trapped by despair and stigma. I wouldn’t understand that this is an urgent conversation.

The U.S. suicide rate has been climbing for the past decade, according to a recent analysis in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. No one knows why, but middle-aged adults—a supposedly stable group—have been driving the increase. Now the economic crisis is pushing vulnerable people over an emotional precipice. Recently a jobless couple checked into a motel in Thunder Bay, where the husband helped the wife to kill herself. As such tales go, it was one of the milder examples. Remember the unemployed Californian who killed his wife, their three sons, his mother-in-law and himself?

Even so, I feel hopeful. Not so long ago, breast cancer was a taboo subject. Now breast cancer survivors and their champions feel proud to rally in the streets. I can already picture the day when mental illness has champions who take their cause to the streets. They’re wearing T-shirts with the faces of their loved ones and big bold letters that say, “I’m here for my dad, Harry,” “I’m here for my friend, Katherine” or “I’m here for me.” They won’t be ashamed to add, next to some of the smiling photos, “lost the fight.”

P.S. For another perspective on this subject, check out’s fine investigative series on preventable deaths, including suicides, among returning U.S. soldiers.

Posted by Rona

Leave a Reply

Stay up-to-date with Rona.

To see what’s on my mind these days, friend me on Facebook.

Miss my old site?

Visit the archive to find your favorite blog posts and Chatelaine editorials or browse my published articles. Sorry, I’m not blogging anymore.