Suicide: What you don’t hear

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From social media to time management, many factors affect youth suicide

Second to accidents, what is the leading cause of death in Canadians aged 15 to 24?

A)  Nickelback

B)  Bears

C)  HST

D)  Suicide

Yep, it’s the morbid one at the end.

You probably go to UVic. So do I. You may have complimented my mason jar in Poli 317 last semester. Tomorrow you might bump into me at Bibliocafé and ask where I’ve been, and before you can protest we’ll be up to our ankles in it.

This isn’t easy to say. I didn’t feel depression hit as hard as it did. Everything seemed normal — Monday music bingo at Maude Hunter’s Pub; procrasti-baking; pulling all-nighters; passive-aggressively mounding my roommate’s forgotten laundry on top of the dryer. And then one night I drank too much and took some pills and woke up on life support in Victoria’s Royal Jubilee Hospital.

According to Statistics Canada, as many as 72 000 Canadians attempt suicide every year. That’s almost 200 people a day. Of those who try, 3 600 people succeed annually. The Canadian Mental Health Association states that 10–20 per cent of young Canadians suffer from mental health problems; depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder can cause a high risk of suicide. Suicide in Canadian youth is rated the third highest in the industrialized world . While I made my attempt in June, July and August have the highest suicide rates out of the year.

Youth under the age of 20 have the highest rates of depression symptoms. In addition to depression, I was just diagnosed with — they’re not sure what to call it yet — a cerebral allergy to alcohol (which intensified the depression). That’s a thing?

Maclean’s magazine recently noted a number of startling findings in Canadian universities. Cornell University sets up steel nets underneath seven bridges around the university every year. The demand for crisis counselling at Ryerson University rose 200 per cent last year. In a 2011 survey of 1 600 University of Alberta students, 51 per cent disclosed feelings of hopelessness while seven per cent had seriously considered suicide. At Queen’s University, four students committed suicide within 14 months beginning in 2010.

As widely known and actively ignored as it is, a “normal” university lifestyle can become extremely unhealthy.

Sara Wegwitz, UVic’s nurse educator, says an unhealthy body means an unhealthy mind.

“Our physiology — the way we eat, move and think — infects and affects our psychology and vice versa. The two are never separated.”

So beating myself up over that late paper and occasionally skipping the gym and sometimes napping left me with a sleep schedule that was almost nocturnal. My 8:30 a.m. class rolled around just as I had fallen asleep. This started a cycle that I have only now — six months later — broken.

Looking back, I matched many of the symptoms of depression/suicidal ideation according to UVic Health Services: persistent tiredness, significant changes in appetite and sleep patterns, changes in libido (sex? What’s sex?), social withdrawl (friends? Huh?), inexplicable feelings of guilt and worthlessness, random bodily aches, overwhelming sadness and unexplained crying spells, recklessness, increased alcohol use and a sudden sense of calm. It was tough to recognize, though, because I never admitted to myself or anyone else that I wasn’t okay.

“The ‘F’ word is a huge sign,” says Wegwitz. “When someone says they’re ‘fine,’ I know something is off.”

It is difficult to pin down why suicidal ideation in educated young adults seems to be increasing.  While personal troubles exacerbate suicidal ideation in many cases, I also found it challenging at night to shut down images of spiking gas prices and drowning polar bears. Pressure is on our generation to make a change — the change.

But it is impossible to fulfill the ideal, educated young adult identity. There are 24 hours in a day. We judge ourselves by the social norms manifested by grad schools, doctors, parents, peers and others, which dictate, at least to me, that we should:

•Study for twice as long as we are in class. (Approximate total = 8 hours per day)

•Exercise: 1 hour per day

•Practice personal hygiene: 1 hour per day

•Prepare and eat healthy food: 3 hours per day

•Sleep: 8 hours per day

•Volunteer: 1 hour per day

•Work part-time: 4 hours per day

•Socialize: 2 hours per day

•Have down time/watch Breaking Bad: 1 hour per day

Total: 29 hours

On top of that, there is the expectation that university students be mature individuals of substance and worth — well-read, sociable, political, funny, good-looking, maybe an activist, involved . . .

“People are should-ing all over themselves,” says Wegwitz, “and are trying to control things they can’t.”

Dr. Duncan Shields, the president of the B.C. Association of Clinical Counsellors, says that the midlife crisis has become the mid-20s crisis.

“Now, people start realizing that they might live a quiet, middle-of-the-pack life and not make a lasting change in their 20s. They wonder who they are and what they are going to do when most of their successes lie ahead of them.”

Aside from untreated mental illness and other factors, I found the fear of becoming stuck in mediocrity consuming. What if I never paid off my student loan? How long would I have to serve before I got a real job? Could I achieve comfort and happiness in this economy?

“It’s unbelievable,” Dr. Paul Termansen, clinical director of Vancouver Coastal Health’s Community Psychiatric Services, says of students pressuring themselves. Termansen has noticed increased suicide attempts in young adults. He believes the breakdown of family structure, difficulty establishing independence, alcohol and drug use and “outrageous” university entrance requirements are worsening the trend of suicide in young adults.

Termansen adds, “Facebook becomes students’ lives and adversely cuts down human contact.”

Shields says social media has fostered a false sense of connectivity in place of true attachment and has affected our sense of identity and accomplishment.

“Technology is one massive experiment,” says Shields, who draws pictures and encourages clients to handwrite notes. “There has been nothing else like this in human history.”

Shields explains that through the pressure to externalize everything, privacy has been eroded and online identities lack coherence and stability. We cannot re-invent ourselves; we are stuck with a public brand that becomes imprinted in our friends’ social memories. We cannot gather feedback from someone’s impressions of us in real time. With such a high speed of interaction, we hardly contemplate our actions and reactions.

It may seem satisfying in the moment to have 25 people like the video of your cat dancing Gangnam style, but that sense of acknowledgement, progress and accomplishment is false. Online profiles can become surrogates in which we lose our true selves.

“You have more friends than ever, but are more alone than ever. But you are still using the same language, so you begin to ask yourself, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ which can lead to despair, depression and sometimes suicide,” says Shields.

At the deepest point in my depression, I spent a lot of time on sites like Tumblr if I wasn’t asleep. And sure, I had a high degree of unwarranted self-loathing. But how do I know how real that pain was?

Shields says we experience social pain in the same part of our brain that we experience physical pain, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. For example, a woman in labour is less likely to use pain medication if she has strong social support.

When I ask how much social interaction a person needs to sustain themselves, Shields says it’s a matter of quality over quantity.

“A real moment of connection — being seen and understood — can sustain you for a very long time.”

This connection is extremely important when dealing with someone who is depressed or suicidal. Several moments of real connection have accelerated my recovery. The most outrageous of such moments was when a friend secretly flew up from Australia, disguised herself as a FedEx carrier and surprised me in Vancouver when I was discharged.

“You don’t have to be perfect; you just have to be present,” says Wegwitz of supporting a troubled friend. “If someone doesn’t seem ‘fine,’ ask the hard questions. It would be selfish of me to let my friend go around all day with a big booger hanging out her nose.”

It takes courage to help someone struggling with a mental illness. Take care of yourself first. UVic’s Peer Helping Program provides a safe, non-judgmental environment for people to talk. Their offices are in the University Centre and the Learning Commons at McPherson Library, 135e.

I spoke with other depressed/suicidal patients, and we agreed that we were most helped by:

Proactive friends

Often I wouldn’t believe that people cared or could help. “I’m here if you need anything” is too vague. It’s as simple as inviting the person to the gym with you or even calling. Set up a routine time to meet up. Do not wait for the person to call you.

Those who encouraged professional help

Accompany the person to a doctor’s appointment.

Attentive, honest friends

Be aware of possible side effects of prescription drugs and take note of any changes in the person’s behaviour.

Cautious friends

Help the person become aware of their triggers (like alcohol) and write out a set of numbers (family, friends, therapists) they can call if they need help. The 24-hour Vancouver Island Crisis Line is 1-888-494-3888.

Dedicated friends

If a person has already experienced a suicidal crisis, keep in contact with them throughout their recovery. The trend of suicidality in young adults is terrifying, but universities are taking note. Carleton University runs a program called Bounce Back, which connects students who are struggling academically with upper-year mentors. The University of British Columbia recently implemented a week-long reading break in February to reduce study anxiety in students.

At UVic, a more comprehensive and co-ordinated team approach is underway. Dr. Judy Burgess, UVic Health Services director, has drawn on UVic resources of physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors and nurses to enhance mental health services.The approach started with the Eating Disorders Program last year and is now adding a Mood and Anxiety Program (MAP). MAP will provide a range of resources and services, including group therapy, psychotherapy, care co-ordination and more.  Though still developing, MAP can be accessed with a referral from a Health Services physician, Counselling Services or the Resource Centre for Students with a Disability. Health Services will announce the program’s official launch soon.

UVic Health Services is also looking to intervene at early stages of potential instability in students.

“Professors look out for students who aren’t coping well,” explains Burgess. UVic is also offering a Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course which trains people in basic skills for comforting others with mental stress. Although Student Affairs is mainly committed to training staff in MHFA, anyone can take the course through MHFA Canada. The course has already trained 200 people. “The whole point is not to be a bystander,” says Burgess.

A mental health task force composed of faculty, staff and students at UVic will also continue campaigning to raise awareness, just as Stephanie Duchon has at the University of King’s College in Halifax. Twenty-three-year-old Duchon is an organizer at the King’s Mental Health Awareness Collective. She recently opened up about her battle with depression by posting pictures of herself that state: “I am not my mental illness.” She told Maclean’s that by revealing her diagnosis, she hopes others will follow suit. Girl, I’m right behind you. Let’s just hope future employers aren’t constipated with stigma.

According to Burgess, 30 universities, UVic included, will take part in a National College Health Assessment in February 2013. The 64-point questionnaire will gather data about topics like student health, campus safety, substance use, mental health and suicidal ideation.

While I can’t speak for every student struggling mentally, I can speak for myself when I say thanks for hearing me out. Though we might not know the origin of this burst of suicidal ideation, we cannot ignore it. Take the survey. In that way, you can make a change.

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