Canada is a different country today from what it was two days ago, after a rare public memorial service for a teenage suicide victim – 5,600 people in Ottawa's professional hockey arena. Suicide, particularly the suicide of the young, is no longer the taboo it has been.
That is an extraordinary liberation from an age-old silence and its twin, shame. And now that Canadians can talk about it – can say, openly, that they worry that their children may take their lives, that they need to know what to do to reach their children, and if the worst happens, to be able to grieve openly, and share any lessons they've learned – how do we begin to use our new-found freedom to prevent suicide?
One answer is suggested by Bill Wilkerson, who has given as much thought to mental illness and suicide as nearly anyone in Canada, as head of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health.
Approach the subject of mental health openly with your child, he says. Rid yourself of the stereotypes of mental illness that blind you to the needs of your child. Depression is not a sign of weakness or a character flaw. “The old saw ‘they are just trying to get attention' has probably cost us more lives than we think,” he says.
Another answer is to take a closer look at the shortage of mental-health services for young people in distress. Waiting lists to see a child psychiatrist can be as long as a year. A health system that moved Heaven and Earth to reduce waits for cancer treatment should be able to do the same for children's mental health.
A third is to remember that emotional connection, support and a sense of belonging are key for all children and young people at every stage.
Not talking about suicide hasn't stopped it from happening. Teen suicide rates in Canada have risen fourfold in the past 40 years. Among girls 10 to 14, suicide is the second leading cause of death. No disease comes close to ending as many lives of young people 15 to 24 as suicide.
At the heart of Wednesday's service was a family – Luke Richardson, who played 21 years in the NHL, and his wife Stephanie – with the courage to break a taboo for the benefit of other children and families. Canadians should now consider the taboo broken.
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