When George Gosbee committed suicide last November, it shocked the Canadian business community from coast to coast. Gosbee, a self-made Calgary boy who helped found not one, but two, prominent investment banks, was only 48. He was wealthy, outgoing and well-connected. He had a close circle of friends and an insatiable appetite for adventure. He seemed to lead a charmed life. Why would he throw it all away?
The cover story in the September issue of Report on Business magazine – produced after months of work by veteran Calgary reporters Kelly Cryderman and Jeff Jones – tries to answer that question, though there’s no easy explanation. We were able to publish this article because some of Gosbee’s friends and family members wanted people to understand that Gosbee didn’t choose his demons – they chose him – and that his ability to keep going for 48 years, despite the manic highs and debilitating lows, was heroic. Most of all, they wanted some good to come out of a terrible personal tragedy.
On average, 10 Canadians commit suicide every day. Many of them die in the shadows. Their families are too hurt, confused or angry to talk publicly. Some worry that making the cause of death widely known could incite others to commit the same act.
I experienced this instinct to bury the truth myself, when my best friend at university committed suicide shortly after we graduated. He was young and fearless, and had a wicked sense of humour – and he left behind a gaping pit of pain. I remember a long, awkward phone call with his mother a few weeks later. I’d never spoken to her before, and she was looking for clues. Were there any signs? I mumbled a few unhelpful platitudes, and we never talked again. After that, his death was rarely mentioned. We felt guilty and didn’t know what to say.
Lately, however, I've sensed a shift. People are realizing that not talking about suicide hasn't done much to prevent it. According to Statistics Canada, the suicide rate in this country peaked in the early 1980s and has been slowly declining since, but not by much. It's still higher today than it was in the 1950s.
Suicide isn’t as random as it seems. There’s lots of research on those who are most at risk. Mental illness is the largest factor – about half of those who commit suicide have a mental health condition; relationship problems and substance abuse issues follow. Men are more likely to commit suicide than women, and the highest rates occur among those aged 40 to 59. By all accounts, most of these risk factors applied to Gosbee.
At the same time, it's more complex than that. People's lives don't fit neatly into statistical models. There are always messy human factors at play. Depression can lead to drinking and drug use, which can contribute to broken relationships, loneliness, job loss and reckless behaviour. Eventually, the pileup of problems is too much to bear.
I don’t like the idea of talking about suicide. I’m afraid of coming off as glib or exploitative. But I honestly believe that ignoring it is causing harm. If we talk about it, we can learn to recognize the warning signs in others. Those who are desperate might be more willing to ask for help. Employers might provide more support. Gosbee did look for help near the end – but even with all his connections, he didn’t find what he needed.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t successes. I know a couple of people who have contemplated suicide but managed to find help. It wasn’t easy and they didn’t do it on their own. In each case, the first step was a clumsy, difficult conversation. If Gosbee’s friends and family help make that first step a little easier, they’ll save lives.