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Ayla Leniczek/the Gauntlet

Giving up the ghost

Creating awareness about individuals dealing with depression and taking a stance against suicide

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In loving memory of Andrew*, 25-year-old father, friend and son.

You’re where you need to be.  I hope you’re happy and content — the world will miss you greatly.

Do you remember the faces you used to see in the hallways of your high school? The blurred images of captured potential about to break free into the “real world” of possibility? What happened to all of those familiar faces? What became of those people? Did they become doctors or lawyers, or do they still work at Costco?

Andrew was a face in my high school hallway and looking back no one would have ever thought he would die at the ripe age of 25, much less by his own hand. Andrew was like you and I — he could have been one of the peers roaming the halls of this university, with doors of endless possibilities open to him. Andrew was said to be the life of the party, a true joy to be around and a loving father and friend.

On one sweltering day this summer, a day abreast with Stampede enthusiasts and people enjoying the break from winter, Andrew was found dead in his own home. The news of his suicide isn’t easy to accept in the midst of summer fun, but it has become a sad reality for those who were in Andrew’s life.

Many of us are still battling with reasons for his suicide, trying to understand how he hid feelings of pain and depression from his closest friends, and many of us are still learning to deal and find an outlet to express feelings of loss and confusion amidst the maze of social media.

Andrew’s story is an illustration of how many of us are incredible at masking our own pain and doubts, and how many individuals are neither educated nor aware of the different forms depression can take.Most people are not able to identify depression or lack the tools to help deal with depression, even among the people closest to them.

Depression is a very real illness and is commonly swept under the rug. Sure, everyone deals with the ups and downs of life and everyone faces daily challenges, but imagine snowballing downhill and never getting back up or knowing how to. Worse, what drives a person to the point of wanting to escape their own life through death? Can we learn to recognize the signs of depression and offer them the help they need?

“I just saw him two weeks ago,” says Richard Greene*. “He looked fine. He was one of my best friends in high school. I do not understand. I wish there was something I could have done. I wish I just knew.” Greene did not consider himself being “qualified as a friend” because he failed to see the signs of depression in Andrew and could not do anything to help him before he chose to take his own life.  

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, the signs and symptoms of depression include some of the following: feelings of sadness and loss, feelings of guilt and worthlessness, irritability and short temper, loss of interest in usually enjoyed activities, changes in weight or appetite, changes in sleeping patterns like insomnia, noticeable lack of motivation, anxiety and restlessness, muscle and joint pain, frequent headaches, lack of interest in sex and withdrawal from friends and family. The agency further suggests that anyone who experiences at least five of these symptoms for more than two or three weeks should consult a medical professional.

It is not unusual that Andrew was able to conceal his feelings and keep his closest friends and family completely oblivious to his condition. The Public Health Agency of Canada reports that men are less likely to express signs and symptoms of depression because of their inherent autonomy when dealing with conflict. Women generally access and express emotions easier­­­ — therefore, they are flagged more quickly than men and can be clinically treated before they attempt suicide.

Although women’s suicide attempt rates are higher than men, men’s attempts are more successful. According to Statistics Canada, “Deaths by suicide […] reflect only a small percentage of suicide attempts. It is estimated that for every completed suicide there are as many as 20 attempts. Although males are more likely to die from suicide, females are three to four times more likely to attempt it. Furthermore, females are hospitalized for attempted suicide 1.5 times more frequently than males.”

The high risk of youth suicide is equally unknown to some people. Although people expressed shock and dismay when Andrew decided to take his own life, suicide at the young age of 25 is sadly not an anomaly.

Oftentimes, the essence of youth is associated with strength, potential and power, not death and burnout. Unfortunately in Canada, a nation with one of the highest standards of living in the world, suicide is one of the leading causes of death among young people. In 2008, suicide was the second leading cause of death of Canadians aged 15–24, after accidents. As reported by Statistics Canada, “because they do not generally die from natural causes, suicide represents a relatively large percentage of all deaths for younger age groups 15 to 34.”

The constant struggles in everyday life of school, working and maintaining relationships with friends and family can slowly wear anyone down. It can be easy to isolate yourself in times of pressure at school and work. While this is sometimes a necessary coping strategy, trying to meet every single one of life’s demands alone can be a slippery slope. Andrew was not alone in feeling these kinds of pressures and his suicide should be a warning sign to help others evade the perils of depression and suicide.  

A current 22-year-old student at the U of C, Samantha Reid*, describes her struggle of dealing with depression.

“Not only was I working hard to be the model student, but I focused on being the considerate friend and the attentive daughter, all the while preparing for my future by taking on various extracurricular commitments and usually more than one part-time job at a time. I felt like I had been driving at 100 km/h on the Deerfoot since I could remember and then all of a sudden I ran out of gas. It was confusing and jarring. I started sleeping 14 hours a day and only wanted to see one person for three months. I dropped out of school as I couldn’t bring myself to complete work for the courses I was enrolled in. I would spend entire days in one spot on the couch, just wanting the day to be over. I was so tired.”

One does not have to be dealing with these kinds of school and work pressures, or even more severe issues of addiction or divorce, to be dealing with depression and thoughts of suicide. Depression does not discriminate between social classes, races or gender.  Take, for example, professional soccer player Landon Donovan. Donovan recently returned to professional soccer after taking a leave for his struggle with depression, which he has openly talked about in the media. “We live in a world where we want everything to be happy to such an extent we are willing to ignore sadness and pretend all is good . . . which is what I was doing at the end of last year even though I was not in a happy place mentally,” he said in a recent ESPN press release.
  
The criticism that Donovan received after choosing to take some time off reflects a great deal of social stigma associated with the illness despite the new medical research carried out in this field. Depression and other mood disorders are often misinterpreted as fabricated illnesses, claiming instead that they are states of mind made up by an individual and not a physical injury.

An assessment made by the Public Health Agency of Canada states, “Mood disorders are very real illnesses that can have serious and sometimes fatal results. They affect the entire body and not just the mind. Many people never realize they are suffering from depression.”

Upon trying to find reasons for Andrew’s death, many friends of his accept that he may have been facing depression but conceive his suicide as an extreme form of selfishness. “It is different when you have responsibilities like a child,” says close friend Chris Wash*. “When you’re living life for yourself, you can make that choice yourself. When you’re accountable for a child, it is different — you have to see how that will affect their life. I don’t know, some people would still say that it is a selfish act with or without a child but I think it should be his decision to make.”

Many of his close friends and family still need to cope with his decision and are turning to social media for an outlet. While one might think that the medium used to relay the news of Andrew’s death would be phone calls or a newspaper obituary, it continues to be publicized by both normal and unnatural means — Facebook.

Facebook is not an ideal form of dealing with sad news, as it is better designed to document the trivialities of daily life. However, people continue to find comfort in using this form of media as an outlet for their pain.  

Facebook profiles of deceased members often develop into online shrines. They can be convenient, community-building tools for many people to express goodbyes. With one click on Andrew’s tagged name, one is granted access to his online life and can see that a cyber-memorial has already been created. The endless wall posts are evidence of an amalgamation of the many different relationships Andrew developed throughout his life. Posts reflect a range of emotions from confusion to pain to nostalgia. They reveal a wide array of practices of processing and acceptance among many different individuals close to him. The massive amount of posts make it obvious that Andrew had many people in his life who supported him and cared for him.

Although his Facebook wall is filled with nothing but support and positivity, using Facebook as a vehicle to relay these messages is still strange for some.

The overly accessible nature of an online medium such as Facebook seems to make serious subjects too public and renders them trite and insensitively handled. Perhaps this results from the way Facebook users are receiving and processing information of great multitude. On Andrew’s wall one user posted a lovely goodbye, which 20 people proceeded to “like.” Then, the same user liked and commented on another person’s tropical vacation photo.

Have we programmed ourselves to feel only two seconds of pain and remorse before moving on to the next experience or piece of information to ingest? Are there other ways to deal with this loss? If you initially hear the news through this medium and a mouse click leads you to a support group, why not do it — #instanttherapy?

The effects of social media on our generation’s appetite for information should not be the issue, however. Although social media outlets such as Facebook make depression and suicide seem like trivialized or exploited issues, it at least provides an avenue for discourse. Many people need an outlet to channel the real vulnerabilities of existence without having to focus on being politically correct.  There needs to be a way of initiating discourse about sensitive and painful issues.  Through Facebook, not only can vulnerabilities be challenged, but people can be made aware of the real and serious effects of dealing with depression and preventable cases of suicide.  

Andrew’s suicide was a tragedy. Rather than an individual issue, it should be perceived as a social one.  Everyone is equally responsible for being aware of the signs and symptoms of depression so that early treatment can prevent more cases of attempted suicide.  People should not have to deal with emotional stress or sadness alone.

*names have been changed

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