Lynn Keane is a speaker, author, former broadcast journalist and passionate advocate for suicide prevention and mental wellness. She has spent the last decade educating the public about the devastating reality of people in crisis and suicide. Website: lynnkeane.ca TEDx talk: ‘We need to talk about Suicide Prevention’ | Lynn Keane | TEDxYouth@Toronto Twitter @keane_lynn, IG @lynnkeane_7
The pandemic has upended all our lives and made us feel vulnerable at times. If you are living with a mental health condition, simple day to day routines can seem insurmountable. Physical distancing and isolation have not been easy. And while you’ve absorbed so much in your young lives and been deeply affected by world events, you are an incredible cohort. Your experiences have made you resilient and created a deep reservoir of strength within you.
Managing your emotional well-being, especially during this time of uncertainty, is so important. The COVID-19 pandemic has completely changed the way we live and impacted our social connections. The isolation aspect is particularly challenging for young people living with a mental health condition.
Those of us with lived experiences around mental illness and suicide loss have a unique perspective in these times, and our stories provide context and understanding.
My son, Daniel, died by suicide in 2009. In the aftermath, we were devastated and completely broken. We simply had no understanding around depression as an illness, and the potential for a catastrophic outcome when it is left untreated.
After my son’s suicide, I went in search of answers: trying to find out why our
23-year-old son had lost hope. That journey led me to mental health professionals who graciously gave of their time to support my mission. I combed through research on youth mental illness, suicide and suicide prevention. As time went on, I made a promise to myself that I would share Daniel’s story to educate and bring awareness about youth mood disorders in an effort to prevent youth suicide. I wanted young people to potentially see themselves and reach out for the care and support they so desperately needed. That was over eleven years ago and Daniel’s story became a call to action for many young people and their parents.
Our son began feeling frustrated at university, most likely from a growing inability to concentrate and manage assignments. As a result, his relationships began to suffer. The emotional changes he experienced changed his outlook on life. Daniel's depression was emotionally and physically painful. He started drinking to deal with the
overwhelming sadness. Daniel began to isolate himself -- bailing on friends or calling us last minute to say he had to work on a project. Our son felt that he had become a
burden to the people who loved him most. His disease left him feeling like he was
to blame for everything that was going wrong in his life. Daniel felt the sharp edge of stigma and was unable to share his pain or feel our love.
"Suicide never leaves behind a simple narrative. Depression and diseases of the brain arise from a complexity of factors that are often misunderstood and stigmatized."
Chronic health conditions, early life stress, possible head injury, self-medicating behavior and a sense of not belonging were all part of the litany of factors that were involved in Daniel’s depression. The interior shame that he experienced destroyed his instinct for self-preservation. We did not understand that our son was in the fight of his life. And as a result, we were unable to compassionately support him through this difficult period.
Daniel’s last moments were spent away from his family at our cottage. I spoke with him several times that day and he was full of enthusiasm and ideas for his summer maintenance business. Those conversations on his final day did not give me any indication that he was contemplating suicide. Maybe he began to feel a sense of peace; not wanting to end his life but feeling relieved knowing that the intense pain would end.
Whether or not a person talks about ending their life, it’s not death they seek, it’s an end to the overwhelming pain of living with mental illness. They are reaching out for help and that is why it is so important to understand the signs of someone living with thoughts of suicide. I believe Daniel was reaching out to me and trying everything in his power to survive another day.
Suicide never leaves behind a simple narrative. Depression and diseases of the brain arise from a complexity of factors that are often misunderstood and stigmatized. The common thread in suicide is an overarching sense of hopelessness and an inability to see past the present moment.
Suicide prevention begins with understanding mental illness. The majority of people who die by suicide have an unidentified mental health disorder. Many of those people were unable to share their emotional pain because of the stigma and negative stereotypes associated with the disease.
Through education and awareness around mental illness and suicide we can identify, support and offer compassion to someone else and understand our own feelings of despair. We can become suicide prevention warriors by reaching out to politicians and mental health organizations and speaking up for enhanced mental health supports and quicker access to care. Talking about suicide prevention often reduces the stigma associated with mood disorders. Understanding saves lives.
Our family did not recognize the warning signs of suicide. We did not have those important conversations with our son. Today, we talk openly with our kids about the pressures they will face at university, college and the future and managing emotional health. We are more aware of the factors in depression and acknowledge that there is never one reason in suicide.
At the time, we thought some of the behavioural symptoms we saw were a part of growing up and distancing from parental control. Looking back, I realize that Daniel’s sudden bouts of anger and emotional distress were major red flags. His growing malaise was gathering momentum and slowly taking over. Daniel had lost weight and was not sleeping through the night in April of 2009.
During the last months of Daniel’s life, family discussions sometimes morphed into major arguments. As his mom, I recognized that he needed additional support, but I was not equating this change in behaviour as a warning sign for major depression. I love my son more than words can ever accurately describe and yet I was so ill equipped to provide effective support during this critical period. When I asked him to see our family doctor he said, “Mom, I’m fine. I’ll figure things out on my own”. Yet when you no longer want to be anywhere, and when all you can feel is self-hate and that you’ve become a burden, you no longer have the capacity to understand what is happening to your mind. You are unable to figure things out on your own!
"Talking about suicide prevention often reduces the stigma associated with mood disorders. Understanding saves lives."
When I began writing my book, Give Sorrow Words, I went back in time to fit the pieces of Daniel's life together and it was there that I first encountered the stigma associated with mental illness, the sense of worthlessness and shame. I began to acknowledge that we had contributed to Daniel's growing despair because we told him to get his life together. We told him he could do anything if he applied himself.
Daniel had asthma and life-threatening food allergies (anaphylaxis) and we talked often about the impact of having a physical health condition that limited his food options and created anxiety in social situations. His response to that was to learn how to create and prepare incredible meals for himself, his family and friends. The point is he handled it. He got on with life and adapted. That was what he always did until he could no longer tolerate the emotional pain which was consuming him.
After Daniel’s suicide I thought I’d never recover. However, as time passed, I eventually accepted my new reality. It was not a ‘new normal’ because my life without Daniel would never be normal. In leaning into the pain, I found my reservoir of strength. In the aftermath of great loss, I was resilient. I was still standing and finding meaning and purpose in sharing Daniel’s story and advocating for youth suicide prevention.
You will get through these difficult days and be poised to take on the future knowing that you’ve already conquered so much.
My hope is that you look back on this time and appreciate how you handled distance learning and managed the isolation. How you learned new skills and held space for others. Life will resume. And remember that the difficult days are also the most transformational.
You got this!
Need help now?
Reach a Kids Help phone counsellor 24/7 at 1-800-668-6868 or call Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566 or visit the Centre for Suicide Prevention at suicideinfo.ca for more resources and a free, downloadable Suicide Prevention Toolkit.
"In leaning into the pain, I found my reservoir of strength. In the aftermath of great loss, I was resilient."