A Life or Death matter

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Mark Henick, Mental Health Advocate and (an amazing) Speaker
Mark Henick, Mental Health Advocate and (an amazing) Speaker

Mark knows life. Mark knows death. He’s contemplated both.

Mark Henick has dedicated his life from an early age to opening minds and creating change, drawing from his personal experience with suicide and self-harm. His TEDx talk on suicide is amongst the top 50 most watched in the world. Mark is currently a member of the board of directors for the Mental Health Commission of Canada, and the Program Manager for Mental Health Works, a social enterprise of the Canadian Mental Health Association. He addresses issues relating to mental health, mental illness, suicide, advocacy, recovery, and hope for television, radio, print, and online media outlets around the world. He is a frequent commentator for CTV National News and CTV News Channel.

Mark lives and works in Toronto with his wife and son, where he occasionally finds time for new restaurants, yoga, and Argentine tango.

Mark, we don’t talk about suicide and probably one amongst many reasons is because we don’t know how to talk about it. What kind of phenomenon is suicide?
More than 800,000 people die by suicide around the world each and every year. That’s more than the number of people who die by murder and war combined. However, we hear all the time about murders and wars, but very little about suicide. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this is that one of the most effective suicide prevention approaches includes talking honestly about it. That said, it’s important to talk about suicide responsibly. Glorifying suicide as an acceptable option for people, or not providing suicide prevention resources such as telephone helplines, can create trigger risks for people who have past experiences with suicide.

Three pivotal steps to take when you notice you are suicidal

Acknowledge it.

Acknowledge to yourself that it’s a feeling not a fact. You do feel that way, but you don’t have to die.

Reach out.

Tell someone what’s going on, tell them exactly what you need, even if that’s just to keep you safe for the time being.

Challenge yourself.

Challenge your belief that this is the only option, that there’s no hope, and that nobody cares. Open your mind to the possibility that change is possible, and then give yourself permission to change. Take the risk of not clinging to your pain.

What are the main triggers of suicidal thinking?
Generally speaking, pre-existing mental health problems or mental illnesses – diagnosed or not – are the greatest underlying risk factor for suicide. This is especially the case for depression in particular. So, it follows that the typical triggers for depression may also increase suicide risk. These can include family history, genetic predisposition, maladaptive coping mechanisms, and social isolation. For people who are at higher risk, certain life events can serve as triggers. These typically involve major transitions, such as the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or moving to a new home. Chronic stressors such as those related to finances, health, security, or housing may increase risk. Increasing the availability of stigma-free preventative, early intervention, and healthcare services can help to reduce these risks.

Can one cope with suicidal thinking by themselves? 
People who experience thoughts of suicide can and often do learn ways of coping with them by themselves. However, not only is this extremely risky, it’s not necessary. Being suicidal often comes with feelings of extreme isolation, so further isolating, by not letting anyone into that experience could be harmful. Additionally, when we experience a suicidal crisis we often forget about our usual effective coping mechanisms. If someone else is aware of what we’re going through, and how we usually get through it, then it’s like having someone look out for you just in case you need a reminder that you’re worth it.

Do we all carry in ourselves this self-destructive potential?
I absolutely believe that we all have the same potential for not only self-destruction, but also for self-actualisation. Relatively speaking, there is very little that separates someone who is contemplating suicide from someone who has never had those same thoughts. The primary difference is in the lens that we’ve learned to look at the world through, and the life circumstances which have coloured that lens. Two different people presented with the exact same stressful life event will not both think of suicide. Getting to that point requires a long history of unresolved issues. However, that also means that the moment we start re-authoring our history is the moment we start to change our future. Feeling suicidal is a symptom of our past, not necessarily a predictor of our future.

What is the general picture of suicide now compared to 50 years ago?
In most jurisdictions in the industrialised world, completed or attempted suicide is no longer considered a crime. That’s because over the last few decades, legislators have come to the realisation that suicide is not a criminal matter but, rather, a serious public health issue. This speaks to the general shift in how we think of suicide today compared to historically. Although this idea continues to develop, we are much more likely now to realise that someone who dies by suicide likely had a biopsychosocially determined mental health problem or illness, rather than some innate moral failing or character flaw.

How important is communication for one’s mental health?
The free flow of communication from oneself to others, as well as within oneself, is key to good mental health. Recognising and naming our emotions, for example, is the first step toward gaining mastery of them. When our mental health is poor, what that usually comes with is the sense of feeling that we are a slave to how we feel, that we’re isolated because of it, and that there’s nothing we can do about it. Of course that’s not the case. But unless we learn how to communicate with others and with ourselves about how we’re feeling and what we need, it’s easy to fall into that trap.

Three pivotal steps to take when you notice someone you know is suicidal

Ask them directly.

“Are you thinking about killing yourself,” will not give them the idea to do it if they weren’t thinking about it already. If you’re wrong, and they’re not, that’s great. If they in fact are, it’s a good thing you asked, because now you can help.

Listen.

If they’re willing to talk, don’t judge or correct or try to explain away their problems. Actively and emphatically listen to why they want to die, and maybe even why they would want to live.

Keep both of you safe.

They may need to go to a hospital in order to be kept safe. This can be a very challenging experience, but if the alternative is that they might die, then it can be the best option. Everyone should take the time to know about their local suicide hotlines, mental health crisis teams, workplace resources, and health centres and professionals.

Are self­harm and attempted suicide a prelude to completed suicide or could they exist separately as a sort of flawed coping mechanism?
Non-Suicidal Self Injury (NSSI) is a generally seen as a maladaptive coping mechanism. It can arise from feelings of emptiness and intense emotion. It is sometimes thought by the person who does it as a way to distract from the confusion and desperation that they feel inside. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. In fact, it often makes things much worse for the person. However, without recognising the other tools they have at their disposal, it can seem like the only option they have. Many who self harm do not have an intention to die, but rather to escape the intense emotions they’re feeling. Arguably, on the other hand, many who are indeed suicidal are such for the same reason – not that they want to die for death’s sake, but because that seems like a better option than living in their present circumstance. In both cases, the task is to help people realise that there is actually a third way of making their present more tolerable, and even enjoyable. The minds of many who self harm or are suicidal have shut this out as a possibility, so we need to focus on opening it back up.

According to statistics more males die by suicide than women do. What is your explanation to that ratio?
This is thought to be due to the how boys and men are socialised differently from girls and women. Men tend to be more externalising. For example, a man is more likely to attempt to resolve an interpersonal issue with a fist fight than a woman is. This extends into the realm of suicide in that men are more likely to use more violent and lethal means than women are. This is also shown by the fact that women actually attempt suicide considerably more frequently, while men die by suicide considerably more frequently. Women are also more likely to ask for and receive help, while men are more often told to “suck it up” and to “be a man.” The tragic result is that this hyper-masculinity is proving to be fatal.

Is suicide ever an option?
No. People have free will, and people can and, far too often, do complete suicide. However, the rationality of how they get to that point within the context of human psychology means that it is not actually a free choice. Being forced to do something by your mind is being forced all the same. That’s especially true when that same mind is experiencing something that influences its perception. Since having an option implies that there is more than one, but you can’t see more than one because of the limits imposed by your mental state, then suicide can’t be an option.

Mark Henick, Mental Health Advocate and Speaker

What unlocked your self-­destructiveness?
A mix of feeling isolated and alone with not yet recognising my internal resources for coping and resilience. It was when I worked to find purpose that I began learning more about myself, learning more skills to help myself, and learning how to be healthy and happy.

How many suicide attempts have you had?
About a half dozen overt attempts, in addition to incidents of self-destructive or high-risk behaviors.

How long did it take to overcome your darkest periods?
Which one? I have dark periods all the time. I also overcome them all the time. In my adolescence, which is when many of the stories that I tell take place, I struggled from about age 12 to 17. I’ve had several relapses since, some quite serious. However, each time they get shorter, the recovery lasts longer, and I learn more about what I need to do to get and stay healthy.

How are you feeling today?
On average, great. I love my job, my family, and the people that I meet in my travels speaking about mental health. Well being is all about averages though. Sure, there are plenty of challenges, some of them that I’d really rather not need to deal with. But I do, and I move on from them, and that’s ok. That’s how it’s supposed to be.

 

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