How Did Raymond Become a Suicide Prevention Counselor?

Taken from The Quebec Suicide Prevention Handbook

suicideI began my working life in the field of biochemical engineering. My life was not glamorous. I spent my days sealed away in a laboratory, slicing rats. I felt isolated. I soon switched to the more dashing field of aviation. For five years I trained charter aircraft pilots and bush pilots. That experience led me into the business and corporate world.

Raymond Viger        File Suicide

Nothing in my background foreshadowed my eventual career switch into the world of counseling. But I had crashed and burned. Stress had caught up with me. Early in my 30s, with two suicide attempts to my credit and a happy marriage disintegrated, I was forced to reconsider my path in life. I studied psychotherapy – first and foremost, so I could work on myself. To keep me out of an early grave. Like the scientist I was trained to be, I took my life apart and examined it piece by piece. Events over the years had accumulated to the point that I’d become a fragile, vulnerable soul. I was defenseless; my life had descended into a perpetual state of crisis.

Once I’d unburdened myself of many of my demons, I felt ready to enroll in a psychotherapist’s course. I had no intention of saving the world. But I wanted to stay true to my principles, my values, my new way of life. Working with the distressed was a selfish act – a personal life insurance policy tucked into my back pocket, there in case the black dog of depression showed up at my door once more. Trained in crisis intervention, I could build my own private lighthouse and watch for the telltale signs of turbulent seas before the tsunami. I built a personal and professional support system. It was, I hoped, sufficiently large for any cries for help to be heard before it was too late.

To realize you need help takes a lot of humility. I apprenticed as an aide to my own personal psychotherapist; then I spread my wings and took flight myself. I felt oddly at ease as those in distress came to see me with their problems. It gave me an air of calm. For better or for worse, I fed off the misery of others. Helping them with their dilemmas gave me strength.

Was I right to draw strength from the weaknesses of my patients? When I wrestled with this question, I tumbled back into that dark place I’d crawled out from. Perhaps it is best to accept the contradictory nature of human existence. The world is not black and white. Joy and sadness, strength and weakness, are not mutually exclusive: accepting that the world is a rainbow makes life a wonderful thing.

Suicide as the Solution to All Problems

My biggest sticking point was with society. I idealized society. I saw my city, my community, my province as a place where every citizen could fit in and play their role, from the greatest to the least. My Quebec society was an equitable, just place: in short, I saw life as fair. But the more I delved into the problems of the marginal, the more I saw that our socialist wonderland left many people behind. Real and serious needs were not being addressed. The idea that our society takes its responsibilities towards the marginalized seriously is, sadly, something of a façade.

The year I began my crisis intervention work, the Casino de Montreal opened its doors. It was 1990. The Casino is a glittering jewel on an island in the St. Lawrence River, accessible by bridge, subway and on foot from nearby downtown Montreal. The Casino building is an architectural marvel, a white helix reaching into the sky. At night, it is lit up like a thousand stars, reflecting brilliant light into the shimmering river waters nearby.

It is a working Casino, and a profitable one at that. In its basement there is a morgue. It is a suicide hub. As soon as it opened, Montreal’s crisis intervention community was swamped. Compulsive gamblers lost their shirts. Many gamblers saw suicide as their only way out. These were not the chronically depressed. Here were pillars of society with lives and families – hard working businesspeople in the prime of their careers; seniors who’d never gambled before in their lives and who’d got hooked by the glittering lights of the slot machines… Middle-class citizens throwing away their life savings a few dollars at a time, their logic swamped by a new compulsion…

A problem never shows up to the party alone. In the crisis intervention community, we quickly realized one thing: behind the gambler’s urge to commit suicide lies loneliness, or emotional dependency, or an introvert’s struggle to express despair, or… Those who showed up at our doorstep who had lost their life savings at the Casino had deeper issues underlying their compulsive gambling.

Even if we could save a life today and send that person home, it never prevented their deeper issues from reappearing, at some later date, in some form of compulsive behavior.

The hemorrhage would re-emerge. We had to identify the deeper scar.

For this, the most important tool at our disposal is always the human ear. Listen to people.

Suicide and Society

In the face of this distress, we couldn’t continue our intervention efforts without trying to discuss the matter with the proper authorities. Band-aid solutions wouldn’t do.

My colleague met with the Casino’s management. We offered to work on the premises to help compulsive gamblers directly, one-on-one.

We also offered to train Casino employees on signs of distress to pay attention to. That way, those heading for a darker place could be referred for help before it was too late. A potential suicide could never be allowed to leave the Casino alone after squandering their life’s savings.

I was deeply troubled by the management’s response. They had no need for our help, or for anyone’s help for that matter. They claimed that no gambler ever considered suicide!

Did they mean that all of us folks in crisis counseling were delusional? Our intervention services were completely overwhelmed. My colleague and I, for example, remained available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and we couldn’t handle the demand. Were all those late-night phone calls to us by desperate gamblers figments of the imagination?

This train of thinking took us aback. It was the same reply that crisis counselors got from high school principals confronted with evidence of drug use among their students. “We don’t have that problem at our school…” Their students were coming to us in droves, relating their severe distress.

Those in authority preferred to camouflage problems rather than deal with them head-on. Pretending a social ill doesn’t exist is never a good way of handling it.

As a society, we have to ask ourselves: are we as a collectivity ready to act in the best interests of our fellows? Are our institutions ready to help those in need? Old or young, weak or strong, male or female, every citizen supposedly has their role to play in our community. But does this, in the real world, extend to the handicapped, the mentally ill, the marginalized?


Suicide and the Young Outcast

People from different schools of thought within the suicide prevention community have various methods of operating, but we all agree on one thing: young people contemplating suicide don’t use suicide hotlines. They usually don’t reach out beyond their peer group at all. Amongst the young, suicidal thoughts grow best in the dark.

Prevention must involve establishing a connection with the young person in question. This personal link must be forged before the crisis moment arrives. The troubled youth must be ready and able to confide in at least one other soul. They usually don’t want to talk to strangers. The only recourse, we decided, was to work at street level to build trust. If we were known to the youth of this depressed, marginalized area, they might come to us when they needed aid.

I became very comfortable in my new role as an onsite resource. I became a familiar figure on the streets and in the alleyways of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. With my size and girth, I was a bear-like presence, a big brother. Around tough kids, size helps.

I soon lost my focus: I was no longer simply a suicide prevention counselor. Suicide was not an ever-present thing in these kids’ lives. There were problems behind suicidal thoughts, issues that vitally needed to be addressed: drugs, alcohol, gambling, purposelessness, mental health… The more youths I dealt with, the easier it became to pick up on subtle signals. I could spot icebergs before the boat rammed into them and sank. I could teach others what those signs are. Experience is the best teacher.

Suicide Prevention Hotlines:

Québec: 1-866-APPELLE (277-3553).  CLSCs can also help you.
Canada: Canada Suicide Prevention Service 833-456-4566
U.S.: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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