For When You Think Your Existence Doesn't Matter

Thoughts from the chairside...

Taking a bit of a detour from some of the things I usually post about online, I want to address a heavier topic that has been on my mind for a while.

It was nearing the end of a long workday and I was waiting on my last client to arrive.  They appeared at the door and I was ready to usher them into the room to get their treatment started. Having known that they'd just returned from vacation, I had imagined they would be in a refreshed and upbeat mood, ready to fill my head with visions of incredible weather and beach exploration. While they definitely had the sun-kissed glow of someone who had enjoyed those things, their overall mood was somber and unsettled. Now, usually when I greet someone at work, this kind of reception is the norm. It comes with the territory as there are only a special few who actually look forward to and enjoy coming to the dentist.
This however, was different.  
I am lucky in that my job allows me to see the same people every few months, so we can develop trusting relationships, find comfort and points of familiarity providing the oppourtunity to bypass the small talk and delve into meaningful chats about our lives and issues that closely affect us.  With this client in particular, it was maybe only the second or third time I had seen them so I wasn't sure whether they were in the mood to talk or just zone out and watch tv. I think it is important here to note that I always try to read verbal and non verbal cues from a person before probing them - with questions that is, because whether they like it or not, their gums are going to get a good probing!  Certainly we all have days where we would rather zone out and watch tv which is totally fine, but on this day in particular, I am glad that I asked the questions. 

After exchanging a few pleasantries, I proceeded to touch on work and how it might have been difficult to go back after being away. That's when I knew I'd hit a nerve. They let out the kind of exhale that I usually reserve for after an intense barre class. The nature of their job requires them to work in close proximity to law enforcement and they can be exposed to many of the unspeakable things that law enforcement observe in the community and behind it's closed doors. The one topic that really stuck with them is the recent and staggering number of youth who are still taking their own lives and how mental illness is such a real and growing problem that is still not given enough attention.

It is so unfortunate that despite the efforts of those raising awareness, people are still reluctant to discuss it in a more open forum.  Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people after motor vehicle accidents.  How do we move beyond the stigma, guilt and shame that surrounds mental illness and suicide and have the conversations... and then keep those conversations going?  Questions.
Questions lead to conversations and exchanging ideas and ideas are creativity in motion and creative thinking can lead to problem solving.

The significant problems we have cannot be solved by the same level of thinking with which we created them.
— Albert Einstein

This isn't a problem that should be left for a family to deal with alone behind closed doors because they are ashamed and afraid that their neighbour or peer might think differently about them, because the likelihood is that the neighbour or peer is also alone with guilt and dealing with the same problem. For my generation starting or adding to their growing families, this is important stuff to be aware of and to address with your kids when they can comprehend. As someone with 4 siblings in their young adult years, with a history of mental illness in our family as well as suicide, it is of utmost importance that we keep supportive lines of communication open. Adolescence is a time of such dramatic change that can be so complex. Young people feel so much pressure to succeed in all facets of life while also lacking the independent life experience to know and be able to trust that difficult situations will not last forever. It is easy to tell someone that there is a light at the end of the tunnel but when they've never been down that tunnel before or found their way to the other side, unfortunately the only relief can appear to be suicide. This continued tradition of silence and ignorance can perpetuate harmful attitudes and prevent people from talking about the pain they feel. Especially for adults and parents, it can seem daunting to broach such a heavy subject without being aware themselves. Knowing facts about it can help to build the confidence needed to raise these topics with your own kids or kids that you are close to.  A quick online search will lead you to lots of information but there are a few key things to note. 

  • In Canada, suicide is the second highest cause of death for youth aged 10-24. On average, 294 youths die per year due to suicide and for every completion there are nearly 400 attempts.
  •  Youth suicide rates in Canada rose steadily from 1970-1990 and then increases slowed, coinciding with the time when more resources and attention were dedicated to breaking down the stigma. This brought a decline to rates among young males, but a steady rise to the rates of females. Possibly in part to the fact that females are affected more by substance abuse than males. 
  • Talking about suicide will NOT give a young person the idea or permission to consider suicide as a solution to a problem. Talking calmly about suicide, without showing fear or judgment can bring relief to someone who is feeling terribly isolated. A willingness to listen shows sincere concern and encouraging someone to speak about their suicidal feelings can reduce the risk of an attempt. 
  • Suicide is NOT sudden and unpredictable.  Suicide is most often a process, not an event. Eight out of ten people who die by suicide gave some, or even many, indications of their intent. 
  • Suicidal youth are NOT seeking attention or trying to manipulate others. These are always causes for concern and all suicide threats must be taken seriously.
  • Suicidal people are NOT determined to die. Suicidal youth are in pain. They don't necessarily want to die, they want their pain to end. If their ability to cope is stretched to the limit or if problems occur together with a mental illness, it can seem that death is the only way to make the pain stop. 
  • A suicidal person is NOT always going to be at risk. Most people feel suicidal at some point in their lives. The overwhelming desire to escape from pain can be relieved when the problem or pressure is relieved. Learning effective coping strategies to deal with stressful situations can help.

Social media, when used positively, can serve as a very powerful tool to connect, unite and encourage people to share their creative ideas with the world.  In writing this piece, I was inspired by an article from TWLOHA, a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide. @TWLOHA on twitter and for more information. Also, by @Holstee which started out as a t-shirt side project and morphed into a company that shares art that inspires reflection and words that encourage action with a mission to leave a lasting positive impact on the world. 

My job is to care for the health of your mouth and as the mouth is the gateway to the whole body, I am also concerned about a whole body health, including a healthy mind.  

If we cared about our mental health like we care about our dental health, we would be okay.
— Howie Mandel

I will continue to ask my clients about their day and lend an ear if they need to lighten their load, and I would only encourage that everyone try to do the same for anyone that they encounter on their path. A little less talking and a lot more listening is maybe what we could all use in times like these. 

Your existence matters to others; it matters to your blood, it matters to the earth and complete strangers, and it matters to the person who looks back at you in the mirror every day.
— Meggie Royer - To Write Love On Her Arms (@TWLOHA)