Reflections on Mental Health and Youth Suicide Prevention

We numb ourselves to psychological traumas, including emotional isolation, but in disconnecting from others, we’re also disconnecting from ourselves.

| January/February 2013

  • Boys Face
    We can help youth build strong foundations that protect them from our current cultural myths by refusing to accept or support the myths ourselves.
    Illustration By Chris Koehler
  • Falling Boy
    Advertisements online, on TV, in the street, at school, and at social events showcase instant gratification products as solutions to everything, including problems with complicated psychological roots.
    Illustration By Chris Koehler

  • Boys Face
  • Falling Boy

I reached Edmonton’s High Level Bridge as clusters of snowflakes clouded the sky. It was Friday night, already dark, and I was alone but for a young man in black who passed me from the opposite ledge. Walking home was my favorite time to practice singing, and my teacher had me rehearsing Joni Mitchell’s “River.” I squinted into the whitewashed western horizon and sang to the North Saskatchewan: “I wish I had a river so long, I would teach my feet to fly …”

Months later, I learned that my brother, Eugene, had walked the same ledge only a couple of hours earlier. He didn’t make it to the other side of the bridge. On Saturday morning, January 8, 2011, my mom called to tell me Eugene was missing from Alberta Hospital.

My brother spent six years in and out of institutions, mostly hospitals, where doctors diagnosed him with drug-induced paranoid schizophrenia. He’d gone absent without leave several times, so at first we hoped he’d just come home, but as winter weeks passed with no news, we braced ourselves for the worst. On February 3, 2011, I spoke with the missing persons constable who told me about a police report he’d been mulling over since the Monday after Eugene went missing. A man driving over the bridge at 4 p.m. that Friday had notified police when he’d caught a glimpse of a male, “at least six feet tall in a blue and white coat,” diving from the railing. Hearing this news, I closed my eyes, and there he was, jumping. My heart sank in my chest, and I knew he was gone.

“Some people who go in the river never come out,” the constable warned us regarding the search for the body, but my mom prayed for closure and to see her son again. Finally, on April 10, 2011, police were at her door, and she called me, crying: “They found Eugene.” But she couldn’t see him that way—a body emptied of life yet full of water, pulled from the river on a Sunday afternoon, cash still in his wallet and a cast on his arm.

We’d grown up together as fairly normal teenagers who’d rebelled against impending adulthood by smoking a lot of pot, taking mushrooms, and getting drunk. My friends and I loathed the thought of having to live in “the real world” of mortgages, university, debt, responsibilities, and general wage slavery. In the summer of 2004, when Eugene was 19 and I was 17, he told me he was hearing voices. I suggested he seek professional help; then I stopped abusing drugs. An older sibling can be like a yellow canary—first to go down the mine.

I remember our mom asking, “Why him?” But who could ever answer? There’s no single or simple explanation. However, based on my experience, there are several potential triggers of mental illness and suicide in youth, as well as options for youth suicide prevention.

carolyn stapleton
1/4/2013 6:57:36 PM

Dear Gina and Barbra, my heart goes out to you both and know that you (and I) are just tips of the proverbial iceberg. As a sister of an adult mentally ill man I have realized that if the surface is scratched everyone has a family member, friend or loved one with mental illness. As a Nutritionist I have seen how over medicated our children are for conditions like ADD, Autism etc. when simply removing common foods (wheat, dairy, soy, corn) can have such positive effects on behavior. I wonder if the young man in Connecticut had ever been given a chance to be healthy if the outcome would have been the same?

Barbara Eakins
1/4/2013 6:07:42 PM

Thanks for your courage in sharing your story, Gina. It was published in Briarpatch the same day my son died from an overdose of heroin, cocaine and methadone. He had been on numerous psych meds over the years, and none helped him deal with the demons in his head. It sucks losing him, but I'm grateful that I didn't have to go months not knowing what happened to him, and no one knows whether it was intentional or not. I hope that we can turn away from the big pharma quick fixes of trying to medicate mental illness away, and find ways to truly help troubled souls find their way in this world.

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