Suicide: How Widespread is the Problem?

The province of Quebec, population 8 million, boasts the highest suicide rate in North America and among the highest in the world. Every day, an average of between 3 and 4 Quebecers take their own lives. Rates among teens are at epidemic proportions. Every year in Quebec sees 10,000 attempted suicides by those under 19 years of age. That represents 1 in 50 youths of this province trying to end their own lives. Moreover, each year 40,000 youths have suicidal thoughts. Which means that in any class of 25 high school students, on average, 2 of those vibrant, dynamic young people have contemplated suicide over the previous 12-month period.

Why suicides are higher in some places than in others is a mystery. There are poorer, more economically unequal places than Quebec with much lower suicide rates.

But statistics never tell the full story. It’s always dangerous to base conclusions simply on raw data. Are these numbers accurate? The actual problem could be much worse. Suicide is an iceberg, its bulk invisible below the surface of the reflective, glassy water of our fears and social taboos. Even coroners are traditionally reluctant to rule a death a suicide without hard proof.

Prior generations were even less prone to talk about a variety of social ills, including suicide, than we are today. So it is impossible to say with any accuracy whether the situation has really got better or worse.

One observation the prevention community has made is that today’s youth are less likely to disguise what they are about to do, or what they have done, than were people of their parents’ or grandparents’ generation.

More people signal their intent beforehand; more suicides leave notes now than ever before. Some recent studies show that 7 out of 10 suicides have openly talked about their plans ahead of time; others signal their intent somehow, so that in the end 8 out of 10 suicides have tried to telegraph their intentions to those around them before attempting the final, drastic act.

An attempted suicide in youth leaves scars on the survivor. It can cause permanent psychological and even physical damage.

The youth will carry these scars for the rest of his or her life. An attempted suicide is never an isolated event. It pulls inside its vortex many emotional victims: parents, brothers and sisters, grandparents, friends, teachers, fellow students, workmates… Stemming the suicide epidemic doesn’t just mean stopping suicides; it means nipping attempted suicides in the bud.

But how can this be done if no one wants to talk about it? How can we break the Omerta, the wall of silence, in a society where the whole subject is stigmatized?  

Book excerpt from Quebec Suicide Prevention Handbook (2014), Éditions TNT

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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