Two women sit across from each other at a table, holding each other's hands.
"We need to ask outright if we are concerned someone might be suicidal, and to listen if someone is in distress," writes Diana Ballon. (Photograph by Productions)

Topics: Ethical Living, July/August 2024 | Health

Talking about suicide is hard but critical

In Canada, 12 people die by suicide each day. Saving lives starts with courageous conversations.


In the obituary for Andrea Haman, a former colleague of mine who ended her life in 2022, her husband, David Begg, asked that, in lieu of flowers, we have “open and brave discussions about suicide.”

Haman’s suicide was a profound tragedy that affected me greatly. We had both researched and written about the neurobiology of mental health problems before being laid off from Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) near the beginning of the pandemic. But her husband’s request was one that felt long overdue. In my own family, suicide was a topic that was also mired in secrecy.

When my dad’s brother Jon, a Montreal cardiologist and president of the Quebec Heart Foundation, died in 1974, my parents told my siblings and me he’d had a heart attack. It wasn’t until around 1990 that a relative referenced “Jon’s suicide,” having no idea that we’d never been told.

Because I’m writing about the need for transparency, I have to acknowledge that I’ve also had thoughts of ending my life. Although this dark period was mostly during my 20s, it was a time when I couldn’t see a way to climb out of my depression and felt like I had nothing good to offer. It’s common to feel shame about being unable to cope, and that makes it scary to talk to others about how you’re feeling. Meanwhile, others are often scared to bring up the topic with you.

What I know now is that we must talk about suicide. According to the most recent Statistics Canada findings, about 12 people a day in Canada die by suicide — many of whom have a diagnosable psychiatric illness. People who are marginalized, discriminated against, bullied and victims of violence also have alarmingly high rates of suicide. While suicide isn’t always preventable, removing the stigma around it means those who are struggling will be more willing to confide in others — and get help.

As Begg later said to me, “In hindsight, I wish I had broached the subject [of suicide with Andrea]. Maybe I was afraid to broach it, afraid of what her answer might be.” Begg adds that he had known Haman felt shame about her condition, but he hadn’t thought that it would lead to suicide.

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Jon’s son was only 12 when his father died by suicide, and yet he still speaks with regret. “If it had been a different era when alcoholism was recognized as a disease and not a personal failing, [my dad] might have been able to reach out for help….I do believe he had friends and family who loved him very much and would have helped him,” he says. “Suicide is permanent, but depression and alcoholism are temporary conditions that can be treated.”

Part of what is so scary about suicide is that it can reflect irrational thinking: in the deepest depths of depression, people may cease to see their life realistically and might end up acting from an overly pessimistic place.

In the two months before Haman died, “Everything she saw was through the lens of fear, but magnified to the worst it could possibly be,” says Begg. When her employment insurance ran out, she thought they would lose the house. When she went to sign up for a mindfulness anxiety support program, she thought Children’s Aid would find out about her mental state and take her kids away. And before committing to doing some freelance work, she thought there would be legal consequences if she didn’t complete it.

But before that, Begg says that Haman would have thought the idea of ending her life was “ludicrous,” and that it would have been inconceivable to her to leave her sons, who were 11 and 16 at the time. “She went from functioning well to severe anxiety within a period of a couple of weeks,” says Begg, with anxiety affecting her sleep and insomnia increasing her anxiety in a kind of spiral.

Suicide is obviously tragic for the person who dies, but also for what a 2022 Canadian Community Health Survey estimated to be seven to 10 people who are significantly affected by the loss. When I look back on my uncle’s death, I recall my dad being not just sad but angry. I wonder if, had I known what really happened, I could have tried to talk to him about how he was feeling.

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I don’t judge Haman for ending her life. I was not inside her darkness. But I do wish she had been able to once again see the glimmers of life, to see and feel the love that was around her, to enjoy what had once lifted her spirits: nature, a canoe ride, a walk along a city street, her family.

There are no easy answers, but we need to ask outright if we are concerned someone might be suicidal, and to listen if someone is in distress.

“I’ve always tried to use plain and direct language in talking about suicide. Euphemism is how discomfort is couched,” says David Goldbloom, a retired CAMH psychiatrist who is also my cousin. “Every person I’ve met over the last 40 years who has struggled with moderate to severe depression has thought about suicide in some way. Bringing the discussion into the open is, I believe, an act of empathy, understanding and hope.”

Fortunately, I was able to get through those dark times to enjoy my amazing family and friends, experience a fulfilling career and — like Haman — have a partner and two children of my own. It was about having hope (and a good therapist) and trusting that life would get better, even though at the time I didn’t rationally know how.

For the family, friends and others touched by a suicide, we need to be there emotionally and practically as they cope with their loss. Maybe that means offering to notify others or helping with the funeral arrangements. Or maybe it’s simply inviting them to talk about the person who has died so they can feel their presence as they speak, and for us to really listen to how they are feeling.


Diana Ballon is writer and editor in Toronto.

This story originally appeared in Broadview’s July/August 2024 issue with the title “Talking About Suicide Is Hard, but Critical”


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