A tragic coincidence of events reinforces my conviction that Canada still needs a real strategy on suicide prevention.
First came the reports of suicides among military veterans, which prompted a national outcry, much defensiveness from the government and a call for a royal commission from former chief of defence staff Rick Hillier.
With Canada’s renewed commitment to a stronger combat role for our troops has come an epidemic of post traumatic stress, which all armies have faced in every war but are reluctant to confront the real consequences when the fighting stops.
Just after Christmas I received an e-mail telling me that the talented and lively 29-year-old son of the chief of Neskantaga First Nation had taken his own life. Two days later came news of the death of Chris Peloso, the gentle man who was George Smitherman’s husband and a personal friend. Chris lost his battle with depression.
I write this coming back from the funeral of Duane Moonias, who was buried in an emotional and moving ceremony by his family and Neskatanga community in a place marked by great physical beauty and deep human loss. Last year, I attended a community healing feast after several young women took their own lives, a reality that is faced by many First Nation across the land, as well as Inuit and Metis peoples. Their lives are marked by such hardship and suffering that suicide is now seen as just one more “way out” – and alarmingly acceptable. The communities simply do not have the resources to respond to the depth of the crisis, and governments are not doing anywhere near enough to help them.
We have known for generations that suicide is as much a societal as a personal tragedy, and that while we can never be certain who will be struck by depression and hopelessness, we do know for certain that hopeless and depressing circumstances can produce their own self inflicted-death and destruction.
Mental health is the weakest link in our health care system, but more important it is still the issue that hides away from much conversation. There are still too few places outside a health care setting where the issue is addressed, as if mental health and addiction are still taboos not to be mentioned in polite company. Families wrestle with the need for privacy, but this can become a secret that needs to be hidden away, often with devastating consequences.
There are many places in our society that are suffering from the deep stress of abuse, violence, depression and the torment of fear and loss. Not just people, but places. We put our soldiers in harm’s way, and then fail them when they respond like human beings to the full horror of war. We pass the wine and cheese while tut-tutting about poverty and dysfunction on first nation reserves, but have no strategy to deal with its awful consequences.
Not everyone will be happy all the time, but depression is not unhappiness. It is at once an individual illness and a reflection of deep conflict within society as well as within our souls. The answer lies first in talking, and naming; and then taking the human footsteps that will lead not to nirvana but surely to a better place than where we are now.
There are more voices speaking up than ever before. From the Mental Health Commission to Bell Canada to outspoken individuals across the spectrum of public life, we are further ahead today than twenty years ago. But we have miles to go before we sleep.
Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.