Youth suicide: Breaking the silence
Friends and family who've lost loved ones to suicide are encouraging dialogue about mental health
February 16, 2011
Over 300 people stood outside the University of Western Ontario waiting for the ceremony to begin. Many stamped their feet, rubbed their hands and huddled together with others, finding warmth as winter set in.
It was Hanukkah, one of Judaism’s happiest holidays. But on this night, feelings of loss and grief were palpable among the crowd. Students, faculty and community members showed their support and sadness over the suicide of Gabi Isserow, a third year student.
“She was totally fine when the school year began,” says Gabi’s cousin, Jenna Isserow.
Near the end of September things began to change in Gabi, said Isserow. “She was different all of a sudden; something shifted in her.”
Gabi eventually left Western and went back home to Vancouver. Her body was found on Nov. 28.
“A lot of the time people can’t handle it (suicide). Some people keep it inside of themselves more, some less. It’s just the way people are,” said Isserow.
Youth suicide is a topic many people feel uncomfortable discussing, despite the fact that suicide is the second highest cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 24, according to Statistics Canada.
Isserow believes talking about mental health issues can help prevent such tragedies.
In early February, Isserow and Gabi’s roommates distributed buttons on campus in her memory.
“People would ask, ‘Why are you selling bracelets?’ and Gabi’s roommate would say “It’s for our friend who took her life,” and they would ask all these different questions which we didn’t really know how to answer,” Isserow said.
She thinks most young people have never looked at the topic of suicide and mental health, and they need to start.
Her thoughts are shared by others who have lost loved ones before their time.
Ottawa Senators raising funds and awareness
After his daughter committed suicide, Luke Richardson, assistant coach of the Ottawa Senators, partnered with the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health. Together, they organized the ‘Do it for Daron’ campaign to not only raise money, but inspire conversation, said Tim Klucke, the foundation’s president and CEO.
The public is beginning to understand that mental illness often leads to suicide and it is not a form of weakness to be stigmatized, he said.
Do it for Daron Purple Pledge Day was held on Feb 8, and raised over $100,000. Over 300 schools, community workplaces and organizations in Ottawa participated. The second part of the campaign will be held on Feb. 26 when the Ottawa Senators play the Philadelphia Flyers. Both teams plan to wrap their sticks with purple tape in Daron’s honour and wear the purple ‘Do it for Daron’ insignia. Purple was Daron’s favourite colour.
“I think that as we begin to educate the community on what mental illness is and what it is not, I think you’ll start to see the stigma be reduced. And we’ve certainly seen it here in Ottawa that there’s more of a dialogue now in the community about the issue,” said Klucke. “It has actually inspired people to go ahead and get treatment.”
Experts say media coverage is changing
Larry Cornies, professor of journalism at Canestoga College, also acknowledges this trend, saying that news media are beginning to create a dialogue on the issue.
“We’re in it,” said Cornies. “We have come from this era where we saw it (suicide) as a great taboo and we’re now beginning to understand suicide much more as a mental illness and we’re adjusting our plans accordingly.”
Media outlets have traditionally been afraid of provoking more suicides by publishing stories related to the topic, he said. However, Cornies believes that is all changing with modern ways of finding information.
“The media access we have now, whether it’s YouTube or Google; examples of suicide, video of suicide, are often just a click away. So, the copycat argument that has been used so often in the past doesn’t hold as much sway as it used to,” he said.
Janet Thomson, journalist at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, also believes the trend is encouraging discussion around a topic long considered taboo.
“There was a time when cancer was a word that wasn’t used and mental illness is that area now.”
Rebecca Machado, bereavement services coordinator at the Canadian Mental Health Association in London stresses that those who are experiencing signs of affliction must seek help.
“The ability to talk about it is not about personal weakness…It is how it is talked about… It is how we present the concept,” she said.
Even before Gabi’s suicide, Isserow said she frequently discussed suicide and mental health with her mother, who is a social worker, but that nothing could prepare her for losing Gabi.
“Even when you think you know so much about suicide, but when it actually happens you have so many questions that you wish could be answered but they can’t,” she said.
Isserow thinks educating students about the warning signs and how to help those dealing with mental health issues is extremely important. But the presentation must engage and interest young people who otherwise don’t think the discussion is relevant to them, she said.
“Maybe do an event, something interactive, get a speaker out of student counseling services something that students can connect with, hearing people talk about it is better than a pamphlet.”
Just before the first candle was lit in Gabi’s honour at the Hanukkah ceremony, UWO president Amit Chakma expressed his condolences and encouraged students to seek help if needed.
“There's no shame in reaching out for help, and no need to suffer alone,” Chakma repeated in an email statement.
“Everyone, however, can play a role by educating themselves on how to recognize the signs that a friend, colleague or loved one may be in distress and need of help,” he added. “And, most importantly, having the courage to intervene before it's too late."
Listen to the audio coverage from the Dec. 2 Hanukkah celebration of Gabi Isserow's life.