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On the edge

By Jackie Burns

Brian was 19 when he tried to kill himself two years ago. His girlfriend of two years had just broken up with him and he was working in a dead-end job. After a heated argument with his ex late one November night, he drove home from her house in a rage. He cut through corners and traffic lights and could barely see the road for the streams of tears that were rolling down his face.

“The girl that I loved to bits didn’t want me anymore,” he says. “I thought there was nobody else for me. I thought I wanted to be dead.”

When Brian got home, he wrote a five-page letter to his ex-girlfriend and family. In it, he apologized for what he was about to do, and let them know he would always love them. He swallowed 60 extra-strength tylenol and washed them down with fruit punch. Half an hour later the pills started to kick in. And it was then that Brian realized he has made a horrible mistake.

“I changed my mind. I didn’t want to be dead. I thought maybe things will be better.”

Brian ran upstairs and woke his mother. She rushed him to the hospital where he had his stomach pumped.

Brian was lucky. His suicide attempt wasn’t successful. But the numbers of young Canadians who are is shocking.

The issue of suicide has become so pressing that the University of Toronto names its first chair for suicide studies in January. The Arthur Sommer-Rotenberg chair was named in honour of a 36-year-old Toronto doctor who killed himself. Dr. Paul Links, a professor at U of T’s department of psychiatry will lead the research on suicide, one of the leading causes of death for people under the age of 35. The program aims to gain a better understanding of suicide and suicidal behaviour, as well as develop treatments and prevention.

And in order for the problem to be brought under control, Canadians should be aware of the issues surrounding suicide. They live in a country which has the third highest rate in the industrialized world, behind Finland and New Zealand. While Canada’s overall suicide rate rose 78 per cent between 1952 and 1992, the rate for 15- to 19-year-olds increased by more than 600 per cent, from two to 12.9 per 100,000.

The motivation for suicide is two-fold.

“If you look at young adults who take their lives, it’s clear that both environmental factors and factors within the person contribute to suicide,” he says.

For a young adult male who will take his life after losing a relationship, the environmental factor is the breakup, and the factor within is the inability to emotionally cope with the situation. Links says the two make a deadly combination.

But there are other explanations as to why young people are willing to take their lives. There’s less family stability these days, and drugs and firearms are more accessible. Young people are worried about what the future holds, and are overwhelmed by the prospect of paying for their education and finding a job in a competitive market.

In last January’s Maclean’s, Dr. Diane Sacks, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto, cited three main factors in teenage suicide.

“The first is depression. Why don’t we treat kids who are depressed? Because we are ashamed of mental illness.” The second is firearms. The third factor is alcohol. “Many suicides are done after kids have been drinking,” says Sacks.

She thinks a significant number of teenage deaths in car accidents are really suicides where alcohol is a factor.

Links says young people are at an extremely high risk when they feel they are hopeless.

“If you know someone who is talking about suicide, or talking about wanting to die, that’s certainly something to be concerned about,” he says. “If you’re not sure whether a person is serious or not, we encourage people to be open and talk about it, because that puts in a safety factor,” he says.

Links thinks the hopelessness young people feel these days can be traced back, in part, to the jobless rate.

“We know that unemployment is related to suicide,” says Links. He says a one per cent increase in the jobless rate has been related to a four to five per cent increase in suicide.

Karen Latoshi is the executive director of The Distress Centre, a Toronto-based 24-hour suicide hotline. She agrees the sense of hopelessness is the major reason people choose to end their own life.

“People who are truly suicidal are feeling both helpless and hopeless about their life situation,” she says.

But Latoshi doesn’t agree the jobless rate for youth is a factor which leads to suicide. “It’s not that simple. It’s the difference between your expectations and reality,” she says.

Latoshi says since young people today have lower expectations than they did in the ‘80s, they aren’t as likely to be disappointed about something they didn’t truly expect to achieve.

For example, Newfoundland has an extremely high unemployment rate, but has the nation’s lowest suicide rate. “That’s because a child growing up has a 50/50 chance of getting a job, so their self-esteem isn’t going to be tied to whether or not they get a job,” she says.

According to Links, every year in Canada 3,500 people take their lives, while 50,000 try. Although attempts are sometimes just a cry for help, they should never be taken lightly.

“Of all people who die as a result of suicide, 30 to 40 per cent have made a previous attempt,” says Latoshi, and added 15 to 20 per cent of people who attempt suicide try a second time.

The Distress Centre gets 60,000 calls a year. Twelve thousand to 14,000 of those calls are strong suicidal cases. The centre has six lines which are always open.

And suicides are no stranger to university life. In December a man committed suicide at Neill-Wycik. A resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, says the man was upset after his girlfriend, a resident of the building, broke up with him. He cut open the screen of the ninth storey window and jumped to his death.

The other two Ryerson residences aren’t taking this new lightly. They make sure there is a peer supporter and a resident assistant on every floor.

Liza Nassim, residence life facilitator at Ryerson, says it’s part of the peer supporter’s job to notice students who are having difficulties making the transition to university life.

“It can be more pro-active that way,” she says. If staff spots a student hasn’t left their room for days, or has undergone a personality change, they will check in.

Nassim says as part of the residence staff’s training they learn the warning signs for depression as well as good listening skills. The staff learns how to deal with suicidal students. So far, there have been no successful suicide attempts at Ryerson’s Pitman Hall or the ILLC.

Brian spent two weeks at the hospital in the psychiatric unit after his suicide attempt. He spent most of the time reflecting. “I learned no matter how bad it seems, others have it worse,” he says.

Two years later, things are much brighter than they were back in that November night.

Brian has a new girlfriend and a better job. When he thinks back to his suicide he feels sick. He hopes others can learn from his situation, and think twice before they decide to take their life.

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