Nfld. & Labrador

A delicate conversation: How to talk about suicide in the public sphere

There was a time when suicide simply wasn't talked about in the news or in the public sphere. That's changing, but it's still a difficult conversation.

'We need to be cautious about how we have these kinds of conversations,' researcher says

The suicide rate in Labrador is higher than in Newfoundland. (Shutterstock)

It's a topic once too taboo to mention in polite company, but more and more mental health advocates are encouraging discussion about suicide, rather than the shroud of a once-common silence. 

Graduate student and researcher Nathaniel Pollock of Memorial University's Labrador Institute says a transformational change is afoot — one that carries with it both opportunity and risk.

"We're seeing a shift towards conversations where mental health and suicide are more openly talked about," said Pollock, who was part of the team which released comprehensive research about suicide in Labrador last year.

The study showed Labrador has higher rates of suicide than Newfoundland, with the highest rates in the Inuit region, Nunatsiavut, on Labrador's northern coast. 

"These are problems that can't be left unaddressed because they have such a massive burden, and they take such a massive toll on society collectively — but also on individuals."

Though media outlets don't typically cover suicides, some cases are difficult to ignore, such as the death Dorothy Angnatok — a young woman who worked with at-risk youth — as well as a string of five suicides in economically struggling Labrador West in just eight months.

'We need to be cautious'

Pollock is in favour of a broader dialogue about mental health and suicide because, he said, it can demonstrate to people struggling with stress and mental illness that they aren't alone.

But there's a right way and a wrong way to have a public conversation.

For instance, reporting gratuitous details about how a person died can do more harm than good, and intense coverage of celebrity suicides can leave people with a romanticized idea of death.

"That's associated with copycat suicide," Pollock said in an interview with Labrador Morning, "and so I think we need to be cautious about how we have these kinds of conversations."

Suicide prevention isn't one thing — it's many different approaches and many different kinds of help.- Nathaniel Pollock

The factors that lead to a person's decision to take his or her own life are complex, he continued, and often oversimplified when reported in the news.

As an example, Pollock points to the familiar narrative of a bullying victim who dies by suicide.

"We need to understand that it's not these individual experiences that are going to impact mental health," he said. "It's broader things."

Stereotypes still a challenge

Social issues like poverty and discrimination are known to have adverse effects on health, so it follows, Pollock said, that mental health would be impacted, too.

"We're simplifying a really complex problem," he said.

"Suicide prevention isn't one thing — it's many different approaches and many different kinds of help, from the level of policy and the way things are funded and how services are organized down to where people can access support."

He also points to societal expectations that put men at greater risk.

"We're sort of socialized to keep problems to ourselves," Pollock said.

"Men in particular are less likely to see their family doctor than women are. They're less likely go to a counsellor. They're less likely to ask for help."

Suicide hotlines exist right across Canada. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the Mental Health Crisis Line can be reached at 1-888-737-4668.

Inuit leader gets personal at suicide strategy launch

6 years ago
Duration 3:25
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed contrasts past tragedies with how a new strategy offers hope to younger Inuit like his son.


Bailey White

CBC News

Bailey White is the producer of the St. John's Morning Show, on CBC Radio One.