Maria Garcia got the phone call on August 28 at around 2 a.m. Her brother, David Garcia, jumped from the High Level Bridge. Earlier that day, he was released from the Royal Alexandra Hospital after spending two weeks in the mental-health ward.
Garcia never thought she’d become a mental-health advocate or speak publicly about her brother’s death, but she hopes that sharing her brother’s story will create discussions that lead to a less stigmatized society.
“I don’t want him to die quietly,” says Garcia. “I’ve heard a few people say this now that when they lose a loved one, they just want the whole world to know about them. And I know that feeling very well now. I’m here to just turn the light on and that’s what I want to do.”
An average of more than 10 Canadians die every day by suicide, and it is the second leading cause of death for both the 10-to-19-years-old and the 20-to-29-years-old demographics, according to the Government of Canada.
“I cannot tell you the number of suicides that we’ve seen in our business even in the last 18 months as a result of the pandemic,” says Ashley Mielke, Grief and Trauma Healing Centre founder and Top 40 Under 40 alumnus. “There’s still so much work we have to do around socialization and changing the narrative on mental health.”
Mielke founded the Grief and Trauma Healing Centre after her dad died by suicide in 2013 and she realized counsellors weren’t thoroughly trained on how to process and treat grief linked to mental health. Mielke was studying to be a psychologist at the time of her dad’s death and was told by her mentors to keep busy — that her grief would allow her to be better at her job. She quickly realized there was no network of support or resources for her to access, and she knew she wasn’t the only one experiencing this.
“Keeping busy is this invitation to isolate and avoid and grieve alone and hope that magically, when enough time passes, everything will magically be healed,” says Mielke. “Meanwhile, you’re bleeding to death emotionally. Culturally, we’re taught to bury stuff and avoid and minimize the emotional pain that we’re feeling instead of actually being emotionally honest and dealing with it.”
The journey to reducing stigma starts by learning how to ask for help, but that’s easier said than done. Much of our behaviour towards mental health stems from childhood socialization. Some common messages taught are to hide emotions, be strong and to “suck it up.” Mielke notes that by the time we reach adolescence, those belief systems are cemented. These messages are especially damaging to males, who make up 75 per cent of the suicides in Canada (of people 15 years old and older). Young boys are taught to protect their masculinity by not showing weakness or emotions. As an adult, that translates into not being able to ask for help.
Despite the many taboos that are slow to disappear, the pandemic has led to mental health being discussed more openly.
“The positive, in terms of the awareness and recognition of the importance of mental health, is that I don’t think we’ve ever had a time in history where we’ve had this much recognition,” says Giri Puligandla, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association Edmonton Region.
But, Puligandla says the existing mental-health programs aren’t enough and people aren’t getting the help they need at a time when they need it most. “Our systems and our services weren’t as effective as they needed to be before the pandemic, and now the demand has increased so much that our services are still what they were before, if not reduced,” says Puligandla.
Mielke says we also have a culture that encourages workaholism. And many use work as a form of unprescribed self-help. Focusing on work as a means to push aside feelings doesn’t make those feelings go away — it increases stress, anxiety, and depression. During a time when people work from home more than ever, prioritizing mental health is key.
“Part of socialization, as far as what experts said, is that men in the early 20th century were raised to work long days,” says Scott McKeen, former city councillor and mental-health advocate. “You’re not being trained to be emotional and social. You’re learning to be a protector, a provider, and to be honoured. That socialization has continued on, I think, but it’s not like it takes one generation to the next to disappear. It’ll take a long time.”
McKeen ties in his own experience with mental health and how he’s experienced panic attacks since he was a teenager. It wasn’t until adulthood that he asked for help and went on antidepressants, a move that, at the time, he felt was a surrender. Being vulnerable and embracing his emotional side was difficult, and everyone around him was shocked when he spoke out about his feelings. No one knew he was struggling, which is why he’s been outspoken about mental health before, during and after his run as city councillor.
One of McKeen’s accomplishments on city council was being part of the committee that approved the budget for the suicide prevention barriers on the High Level Bridge in 2016. The barriers helped reduce suicide rates somewhat, but the Edmonton Police Service continues to receive a high amount of crisis calls involving the bridge. In 2018, there were 96 calls (down from 114 in 2017).
McKeen hoped that barriers would prevent more suicides, and so did Garcia, which is why she reached out to McKeen after her brother died. Garcia connected with McKeen, who gave her a platform to speak at city council meetings about her brother’s story, the need for bridge barricades and the importance of discussing suicide and mental health in general, which she does to this day with her podcast, The Audiothentic.
Mielke and Puligandla agree that the way to break the stigma is through conversation, but first, we need to address why mental health continues to be a taboo subject for so many. One of the reasons is shame.“I lied about how my dad died for at least a couple of years because I was so afraid that people were not only going to judge my dad based on how he died, but they were also going to judge me and think less of me,” says Mielke.
Even before COVID-19 changed the way we live, a mental-health crisis was already here, along with a massive increase in opioid overdoses. More and more young people are taking their own lives.
Those troubling trends have only grown through the COVID pandemic. Add to that the strain the virus has placed on our health-care professionals, and we’re heading to a great reckoning. What happens when the people who are charged with taking care of us are also asking for help?
We take a closer look at how the mental-health crisis drives us to extremes. If you are feeling the strain, it’s important to know you are not alone. Help is out there. Alberta Health Services’ mental-help line is available 24/7, at 1-877-303-2642. The addiction help line number is 1-866-332-2322. When it all becomes too much, the bravest thing you can do is ask for help. Please, do not suffer in silence.
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This article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Edify.