Sask. could decrease suicide by teaching comprehensive sex-ed in schools

I know it would have made a world of a difference for me.
Comprehensive sex-ed in primary and secondary schools could help prevent suicide in Saskatchewan, Jaris Swidrovich says. (Krit Kani/Shutterstock)

This is an opinion piece by Jaris Swidrovich, an Indigenous Two Spirit pansexual/queer male and pharmacist in Saskatoon. He is part of CBC Saskatchewan's Contributors Panel, which is weighing in on issues relevant to Saskatchewan in advance of the provincial election on Oct. 26.

For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Comprehensive sexual health education (sex ed) has the potential to decrease suicide rates in Saskatchewan.

I know it would have made a world of a difference for me.

I am 34 years old and only came out as a Two Spirit pansexual/queer male a few months ago. It has taken me 34 years to piece together the language and knowledge necessary for me to not only understand myself, but to describe myself to others. 

During those 34 years, I often felt it would be easier if I was no longer living. I know I am not alone.

Suicide can be a terminal symptom of a lack of efforts to prevent it. My formal sexual health education was insufficient and incomplete. 

I have always been Indigenous. I have always been queer. I have always been Two Spirit. I have always been disabled. 

I have never learned about my gender and sexual identities in school.

I did not learn about the ins and outs of consent. I did not learn about sexual violence. I did not learn about masturbation or sex for pleasure. I did not learn about cultural differences around sex, gender and relationships.

I did not have the evidence, representation, language or mentorship to see how an intersectional identity like my own could thrive in our world.

Jaris Swidrovich is a First Nations pharmacist in Saskatoon and a Two Spirit pansexual/queer male. (Submitted by Jaris Swidrovich)

Sex ed based on cis-gender, straight, and binary (male versus female only) identities leaves the rest of us in the dark. Rarely, too, are disabled bodies, larger bodies, and black and brown bodies represented. 

Sex ed that is not inclusive stigmatizes people who fall outside of the so-called "norm." Stigmatized people face criticism, bullying and often violence. 

These stigmas can also prevent people from developing a healthy sense of identity and self-worth. This can lead to substance abuse, mental health conditions and, eventually, suicidal thoughts and actions.

The rate of suicide for female First Nations youth in Saskatchewan aged 10 to 19 is 30 times higher than the rate for their non-Indigenous counterparts. The rate of suicide for male First Nations youth in Saskatchewan aged 10 to 19 is 10 times higher than the rate for their non-Indigenous counterparts.

Meanwhile, studies have found that LGBT people in Canada are as much as seven times more likely to have attempted suicide than straight people. A 2017 study found that almost half of transgender people in Saskatchewan and Manitoba had attempted suicide. 

The Saskatchewan health education curriculum for grades 1 to 5 was last updated in 2010. Grades 6 to 9 had a revamping in 2009 and Grade 10 was updated in 2012. We have an election coming up. This is an opportunity for politicians to put a spotlight on education. It is time for an updated, equitable, inclusive, diverse, anti-racist and anti-oppressive comprehensive sexual health education curriculum in Saskatchewan.

Comprehensive sexual health education could be a key part of a provincial suicide prevention strategy. 

It could contribute to representation and normalization of all gender and sexual identities and their intersections with other identities. It could also address and unpack principles of toxic masculinity, which has overwhelming connections to suicide in male children, adolescents and adults. 

For nearly 34 years, I often wondered how I could ever live my life as my fullest and truest self. Resources, people and programs — from OUTSaskatoon and Saskatoon Sexual Health to television shows like Schitt's Creek — filled in the gaps, showing me living examples and the language I needed to feel safe, comfortable, loved and included. 

Imagine if I had received that in my primary and secondary school years. Perhaps I, and many others, wouldn't have included dying on a list of possible management strategies to escape the isolation felt in our heteronormative world.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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Jaris Swidrovich an Indigenous Two Spirit pansexual/queer male and pharmacist in Saskatoon.