When I was 15 years old, I swallowed nearly 100 extra-strength Tylenol capsules. In those moments, I wanted nothing more than for the years of pain to stop. And this was the only way I knew to make that happen.
Little did I know that overdosing on Tylenol didn’t mean I would pass out and not wake up. It meant I would die a slow and excruciatingly painful death, as the Tylenol destroyed my liver.
Fortunately, someone found me and called an ambulance. My stomach was pumped and the medical team got me the mental health support I had no idea existed and that no one in my life noticed I needed, even though I’d been having panic attacks at school for months and was clearly depressed.
On April 24, 2013, I received a phone call that literally dropped me to the floor.
My younger sister was dead. I knew immediately, but it would later be confirmed that Erica died by suicide. Erica had been seeing mental health professionals for years, and I had rushed to her more than half a dozen times when she’d disclosed she was considering suicide. She did not call me this final time, and I know it was because she felt she no longer had the ability to fight. The pain was too great.
On December 24, 2018, I learned that another member of my family had tried a few months earlier to die by suicide. I have sought out and am ensuring she is receiving the help she needs.
Here’s what I know for sure: In the moment that someone is thinking about dying, there is no thought as to what medical or other supports exist for them. There is no thought as to how their death will affect their family, friends, and community. The pain is so intense and runs so deep that they really just want to make it stop; they need it to stop.
As you know, our community has endured more than half a dozen deaths by suicide in the last several months. As you likely also know, Regional Council is considering installing barriers on a specific piece of infrastructure.
There is no question in my mind that installing the barriers is the right thing to do. And, to be extremely frank, if Council decides to not install the barriers, then any future deaths from that piece of infrastructure must weigh very heavily on our consciences. We will have made a decision that permits the problem to continue; that permits people to continue to die.
Some people who are opposed to the barriers have said this is an “emotional issue,” possibly in an effort to dismiss it as being irrational. But here’s the thing: it is an emotional issue. It should be an emotional issue. People are suffering and dying. If that doesn’t stir up emotions, where is our humanity? However, it being an emotional issue does not preclude the ability to make the right and rational decision.
It is likely that I will forever be advocating for more and better mental health supports for our communities. We desperately need a national mental health strategy. We desperately need appropriate levels of healthcare funding from the province to ensure that people are getting the mental health support they need.
But there is more than one answer to this problem. We need more mental health supports and service and we need barriers.
Barriers will prevent people from dying by suicide the way they have been at that location. The idea that they will just step out into traffic or walk to another location or find another way is false. Barriers will provide the pause they need in that moment to seek support or otherwise interrupt their line of thinking.
Barriers will work because many people reach that point of desperation or pain without the ability or other resources to seek mental health support, or they are receiving mental health support, but it’s failing them for one reason or another. Many, many people try to or do die by suicide before they ever receive mental health support. Sometimes, it’s because they’re afraid to ask for support; sometimes, it’s because the support is not available; sometimes, it ends up being this kind of drastic thinking that makes people realize they need the support.
The idea that we shouldn’t put barriers anywhere because we can’t put them everywhere is beyond comprehension. There are other locations in the Niagara region where people die by suicide. Some of them are properties or pieces of infrastructure that the Region of Niagara owns; however, the two most commonly cited locations are not. And because the province won’t do anything about those two locations can not mean that we turn a blind eye to a piece of infrastructure we can do something about.
Would $4 million be well-spent on mental health services and programs? Yes, it absolutely would. No question. However, the money that we are discussing for the barriers is capital money; infrastructure money. We are not able to spend it in the operational budget. It’s lengthy and very complicated and could never be explained well in a blog post, but the Region has very specific rules it must follow about how specific monies are spent. We cannot, for instance, spend money that is in water and wastewater reserves on plowing the roads. We are not permitted to do so. The province sets out those rules.
We have public health officials, including a Medical Officer of Health, who have provided us with pages and pages of evidence that barriers work. In Toronto, for instance, the barriers not only stopped deaths by suicide on a particular piece of infrastructure, but the overall rate of suicide decreased. That is just one example.
As politicians, we are not and cannot be expected to be experts on every issue about which we have to make decisions. That’s what we have skilled and experienced staff for. That said, in this particular case, if it is difficult for some on Council or in the community to believe what we are being told by staff, there is ample academic, peer-reviewed research that is accessible through a simple Google search.
I titled this blog entry the way I did on purpose. I am talking about both literal and figurative barriers to resolve issues around mental health.
In Niagara, we need to install literal barriers because there are so many figurative barriers. And, yes, probably all future pieces of this type of infrastructure should be constructed or repaired with barriers included. At the same time – to continue to try to overcome those figurative barriers – we need to advocate for more and better mental health services and programs. Where it is within our mandate to do so, we need to maintain and implement mental health programs and services.
There is more than one answer to this problem, and we can employ more than one strategy to resolve the problem to the extent we are able. We also need the provincial and federal governments to step up in a serious and meaningful way.
Please note that whilst this is my story and opinion, and I have done a great deal of research on issues around mental health, I am not a mental health support worker.
If you are in crisis or know someone who may be in crisis, please contact:
Crisis Outreach and Support Team (COAST) 1-866-550-5205 (for adults)
Pathstone Mental Health 24-hr Crisis Line 1-800-263-4944 (for children & youth)
If you are grieving, please contact:
Hospice Niagara Support Groups ~ http://www.hospiceniagara.ca
Bereavement support is available to anyone in the Niagara region regardless of cause of death. Hospice provides facilitated peer group support for adults, adolescents and children, a grief walk and peer support for the bereaved. Direct counseling is presently not provided.
Contact Melissa Penner, Bereavement Advisor, 905-984-8766 # 233, email@example.com
Loving Outreach ~ http://www.lovingoutreach.org
A support group for people who are living with loss of a loved one through suicide
Meetings are the second Monday of each month, September—June. Home Visits are available. Contact Walt or Lucienne Chemerika, 905-934-2176, firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact Peter or Wendy Fisher, 905-371-9767