SUICIDAL DISCREPANCIES: What we don’t know about suicide and how to correct it

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There are anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 suicides in Canada per year. The Statistics Canada website cites the year 2009 as an example, when there were 3,890 suicides. Unfortunately, the figures we have are probably low, since there are many ways people can commit suicide without anyone knowing their death was intentional. If someone decides to crash their car into a telephone pole during a snowstorm, how is the coroner to know if it was suicide? What about drowning? Could we really know whether a death was a suicide if someone paddled out alone into a lake and drowned themself?

Numbed to Numbers

We are faced with a lot of numbers these days in the news and on social media. Many of us are now desensitized to them. So let’s put this number of suicides in perspective using an analogy: 3,000 to 4,000 deaths per year is the equivalent of two jetliners crashing and killing everyone onboard twice a month, every month of the year, every year.

What if?

Continuing this analogy, let’s ask ourselves this: how many months of plane crashes would it take for the airline industry and government to say “Wait a minute, something is really wrong here. We need to ground all aircraft until we figure this out.” My guess is, more than one crash in a month is all it would take.

But in the mental health sphere we lose thousands of people every year, and what do we do? We launch campaigns to talk about it.

If two airplanes crashed in a month would we react by saying “We need to start a campaign to talk about these plane crashes”?

Of course not. Sadly, that is what we do with suicides, and it’s just not working.

In 2009, a Canadian Forces panel of experts met in Halifax to discuss suicide prevention. The scientific minds there reported that studies show four key elements which line up when someone is demonstrating suicidal behaviour. They are:

  1. Impulsivity;
  2. Hopelessness and/or Pessimism;
  3. Access to Lethal Means; and
  4. Imitation.

While not wanting to denigrate the research done or researchers themselves, I can say in my own personal experience with suicidal thoughts and behaviour that there was never impulsivity. Anecdotally, when I’ve spoken with others who have had suicidal thoughts or attempts, some of them have also confirmed that their experiences did not meet all of the four elements listed above. Sometimes the decision to commit suicide is based on cold, rational decision-making which lacks both a precipitating event and impulsivity.

Research

Have we ever asked those who have attempted suicide, and survived, what the conditions were that led to their attempt? According to the researchers I’ve worked with, the answer is no.

Put simply, our research is lacking some key elements. We need a strong, science-based, forensic analysis grounded in the direct input of mental health sufferers.

Exit Interview

To use another analogy, when a company loses a client they usually ask the client what they did wrong or what could’ve been done better. With suicide we don’t have that option, because the person is already dead.

Despite millions of dollars being spent every year on suicide prevention, the suicide rate hasn’t gone down.

Without that money being spent the rate would probably climb even higher, but we need to ask ourselves whether we are doing enough. I believe the answer is no.

Study

We need to have the guts and audacity to go into areas of research we have shied away from. While there are a lot of moral, ethical, and legal questions that need to be sorted out before any such research is done, that doesn’t mean we should be scared away from doing it.

Know More

I’ve tried three times to get this type of project started, once with the Department of National Defence, and twice with university researchers from both ends of the country. In the former case they were too risk averse, and in the latter two cases the researchers just backed out. Will any researchers have the will to stand up and take this on?

No More

We are failing the thousands of people that are dying every year. Not everyone who commits suicide is in crisis. We need to know more about why so many choose death over life, and a new and innovative research approach is needed to figure this out. Let’s talk with those who have survived both suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts to know why they chose life over death.

– Written by Stephane Grenier with Adam Montgomery (co-author of Stephane’s book entitled “After the War: Surviving PTSD and Changing Mental Health Culture“, released in February of 2018.)  Adam is also the author of “The Invisible Injured: Psychological Trauma in the Canadian Military from the First World War to Afghanistan”.

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Comments
  • Tom Regehr
    Reply

    As a person who has been suicidal more than once this information about not asking people who have been suicidal research questions is extremely concerning. I’d love to talk about my experience to researchers!

    Stephane – you do good work – thanks!

    Tom Regehr
    CAST Canada

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