Before we met the Elkington family, we didn't often think about suicide.
We've spoken with educators and parents across the country who are concerned about the growing mental health crisis among young Canadians. We've grappled with how to do our part to ensure more people get help. But before speaking with Bill and Sabrina, suicide itself was something we only glimpsed.
Newspapers are justifiably reluctant to publish stories lest they encourage copycats. Coverage is usually limited to articles about veterans with PTSD or Indigenous communities dealing with generations-old trauma.
We weren't getting the full picture. And the way we talked about suicide had been all wrong.
Two years ago, the Elkington's 29-year-old daughter Erika died by suicide. There was a time we would have said she committed suicide, a word usually reserved for criminality.
"But the language around suicide is entirely off base," Bill taught us. "No one commits anything."
There was nothing illegal in her actions. We don't say people committed depression or eating disorders. They don't commit heart disease. Our words about suicide implied a justified guilt, blaming a sick person for inflicting trauma on their family.
Erika was a bright young woman with an MBA. She spoke three languages and swam competitively. She does not deserve judgement.
These are among the leading causes of death in Canada — we just call it suicide.
Every year, over nine million people across North America think about suicide while one million people attempt it. Fifty thousand die.
They are dying from depression and a chemical imbalance in the brain. They are dying from despair, from anxiety and from mental illness. These are among the leading causes of death in Canada — we just call it suicide.
Language matters, and the words we use to talk about suicide matter more than most. They can force people to feel like they suffer alone; alternatively, they can drag the issues underlying suicide into the light.
In the years before the Elkingtons lost Erika, Bill had attended several funerals for people who'd died by suicide. At the services, no one spoke of it. When someone dies from cancer, we talk about the terrible disease and the brave person fighting it. When someone dies from suicide, we are silent, unsure what to say.
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During Erika's celebration of life, Bill didn't stay silent. He told the more than a thousand people gathered to ask their loved ones if they'd ever struggled with mental illness or thought of hurting themselves. Calls soon flooded Bill's phone. His friends and family were shocked that those thoughts percolated in their sons and daughters, wives and husbands.
With that knowledge comes the ability to offer help.
"Erika was always there to help others," Bill told us, the grief still afflicting his voice. Now the family is doing the same with the Erika Legacy Foundation. "We can't change what happened, but we can help make sure it doesn't happen to others and we can use Erika's legacy to make a difference."
It starts with language. Have that tough conversation with loved ones about mental health. It's something we can all do to honour Erika and prevent others from dying by suicide.
Our words are something we can all control.
Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day. For more dispatches from WE, check out WE Stories.
Are you in a crisis? If you need help, contact your local crisis centre. If you know someone who may be having thoughts of suicide, visit suicideprevention.ca to learn how to talk about suicide with the person you're worried about.
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