Death is a concept that many of us struggle with at the best of times, and it is incredibly challenging to understand when the death happen by suicide. The news has been flooded with articles about the sudden deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain this week and I wonder how all of those who loved them are coping to understand their passing. And it hard for us all to comprehend why people who appeared to have it all died in this way.
When I was a teenager I lost my best friend suddenly in a car accident. This was an incredibly challenging time in my life and thinking about how to progress on to the next chapter of my life, my adult years, without her was heartbreaking. This time in my life required deep reflection on the meaning of life and my role and purpose in life. I completely believe that my choice to become a psychologist was due in large part to these reflections at this time in my life.
In my adult years, two very close friends have experienced grief through suicide. A childhood friend lost her son to suicide and an esteemed colleague shared with me in confidence that he lost his mother to suicide as when he was a teen boy. I cannot imagine their pain and how they struggled to not only contemplate the finality of death but doing so with in the context of death by choice.
But, how much choice was actually exercised? As a psychologist I have worked for years with people battling anxiety and depression. The way a person changes when in the throes of mental illness is mind-boggling. It is as though the mental illness invades the person’s soul and takes over control of their thoughts and feelings. People in the depths of mental illness are no longer themselves and they no longer think rationally. I believe people in this place are suffering in unimaginable ways and the pain blinds them. Is suicide really a choice a person makes in their circumstances?
I am then reminded of how challenging it is for people to get mental health treatment. It takes months, if not years, on a waitlist to access mental health support paid for by the Canadian medical services plan. Children who show up to emergency in a severe mental health crisis often leave without ever seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist or with any kind of follow-up care. Registered psychologists in private practice, unlike most psychiatrists, actively provide in-depth assessment and psychotherapy, and yet they are not covered by the medical services plan. I have had families scrimp and save to be able to provide treatment to their children. There are many families who simply go without. In the complex new age that we live in, where children are exposed to violence and pornography online and fentanyl is sold in our high schools, are their mental health challenges any less critical than their physical health needs?
If our governments seriously want to disrupt the current mental health challenge we are facing as a society, the first step would be to acknowledge that mental health needs are as deadly and as important to our society as physical health needs. Instead of flooding family doctors’ waiting rooms with people in crisis, allow people to seek out professionals with expertise in this area and cover this treatment as you would cover the treatment of a broken bone. Covering this treatment in the pediatric population would be an important first step. The time is now!