Lifting the veil of silence in Agassiz

Defeat Depression walk meant to bring awareness to mental health, suicide risks

Suicide almost always goes unreported in the media.

Little information is given by the police of these deaths, and families rarely come forward to tell their stories. Most often, the relatives, friends and co-workers of suicide victims grieve in silence, and helplessly wonder ‘what if’.

What if their loved one was connected to mental health services sooner?

What if someone had seen the signs?

Would he or she still be alive?

These are the thoughts that swirl through Andrea McRae’s mind as she wrestles with the pain of losing her son, Michael, two years ago. Every day she thinks of him, and daily she finds a way to cope, because she knows that without proper coping, she too could become suicidal.

“What I’ve learned to do is give myself permission to do what I have to do each day,” she says. “Really often, I go home, close all my blinds, turn off the TV, and I just am.”

Some days that means crying until no more tears are left. Some days it’s just carrying on.

But on May 27, it will mean lacing up her shoes, joining her closest friends, and embarking on Agassiz’s first ever Defeat Depression Walk.

They’re calling it Strides for Support, and McRae hopes the event will help others who are struggling with the loss of a loved one from mental illness. She wants to lift the veil of silence.

Nationally, it’s called the Defeat Depression walk, organized by the Mood Disorders Association of Canada. While McRae has taken part in Soles for Souls in Vancouver, she wanted to bring the issue home to Agassiz.

This town has lost too many to suicide over the last few years, she says.  She’s hoping that the more people talk openly about suicide and mental illness, the numbers could start to drop.

That’s exactly the premise of Canada’s first ever ‘mental health blueprint’, released on May 8. Duly timed for Mental Health Week, the strategy promises to bring change by focusing “on improving mental health and well-being for all people living in Canada and on creating a mental health system that can truly meet the needs of people of all ages living with mental health problems and illnesses and their families.”

And the real issue behind the shocking suicide numbers is mental health.

“I know how my son struggled,” McRae says. “I know the pain. It’s not an easy decision to kill yourself. You kill yourself because the pain of living is greater than the fear of dying.”

While it may be impossible to imagine a child, friend or parent committing suicide, there are some telltale signs that require immediate attention, she says.

Alcohol abuse, medication abuse and drug use are a clear sign that someone is failing to cope with pain in a healthy manner.

They need help, McRae says, and could be battling depression. And one of the best ways to combat depression is to talk openly about it.

“You have to bring these things out of the closet,” she says. “You can’t pretend that depression doesn’t exist.”

There is a stigma, though. A general consensus among society that people with mental illness should be avoided. Often those with mental illness are ostracized, ignored, or told to toughen up.

“Too often, people with depression are told to get over themselves,” McRae.

But that’s impossible, she adds.

There are about a half dozen mothers in the area who have lost their sons to suicide.

“They were all young men … in their 20s and 30s,” she says. “University educated, bright, everything going for them. But that didn’t make any difference. An illness is an illness.”

Having the Strides for Support event here in Agassiz may help families realize they aren’t alone in their grief. And it may also show some support to those who are fighting depression or other forms of mental illness.

“When you think you’re alone in the situation and you look around and see how many people are affected by the same thing, you realize how prevalent this is.

“People don’t talk about it because they are ashamed,” she says.

But on May 27, they won’t need to be.

As the commemorative rubber bracelet she wears for her son states, it’s time to “Be the Change.”

Time to get involved in the Strides for Support walk.

“If we can help one person, we will be successful,” she says.

Registration opens at 8 a.m. at the Kent Fitness/Activity Centre in Agassiz. The walk will start at 9 a.m. For more information, or to contribute to the cause, visit defeatdepression.ca.

Other B.C. towns with registered walks are Prince George, Burnaby and Penticton.

 

By the numbers

Suicide rates in Canada are recorded by age group and province.

In 2008, there were a total of 3,705 deaths by suicide. Twenty-five of those were children in the age category 10 to 14. The risk of suicide increases with age, with the highest numbers occurring in people ages 40 to 44 (452 in 2008) and 45 to 49 (468 in 2008).

Males are more likely to commit suicide than their female counterparts. In that same year, 2,777 of suicide deaths were men and 928 were women.

In British Columbia, suicide deaths in 2008 were recorded at a rate higher than one per day, with 462 recorded deaths. By comparison of other tragic deaths, 87 people in the province that year were victims of homicide and another 396 were killed in transportation accidents.

To learn more about what’s being done to help people with mental health illnesses, or to read Canada’s Mental Health Strategy, visit www.mentalhealthcommission.ca.