Not knowing Christine Hallman, it’s hard to imagine how dark her past is. Sitting across from her at a table in a slightly crowded restaurant, she laughs and smiles as though she hasn’t a care in the world. But just over a year ago, Christine was fighting the nurses who were trying to save her life.
It all began when she was in grade ten and had just been diagnosed with depression. Throughout her high school career, Hallman had been put on four different anti-depressants, none of which made her feel any better. She admits to cutting herself during those years, though says she never had any intention of actually trying to kill herself. But last May, she just couldn’t take it anymore.
“I was just overwhelmed after going on a missionary trip [to Peru], and just not having the job I want and not being able to pay the bills,” says Hallman.
She woke up to find herself in critical care. She had overdosed on sleeping pills and her heart had stopped. The doctors wondered whether she needed to be transferred to a psych ward, but “they thought I was too innocent for that,” Christine says with a laugh.
After her first stay in the hospital, her doctors forced her to see a counselor, but Hallman found that her psychiatrist did nothing to help.
During Easter of last year, Hallman found herself back in the hospital, telling nurses to back off. She had overdosed again.
All Hallman says she can remember is throwing up, tubes running into her and the doctors forcing her to take charcoal to help her stomach absorb the pills. She laughs about it now.
“Everything with a chalky taste I can’t eat, because it reminds me of it. It was gross.”
After both ordeals, Christine found a majority of her friends and family didn’t know what to do or say to her. Many of them overreacted when she mentioned she was thinking about suicide and threatened to call the police, her parents, or the hospital, but for Hallman this didn’t help.
“[It] made me scared of them and [made me] back away from them,” she says. “That just made me want to shut down and not talk to them.”
“I don’t think they really knew what to do with me,” Christine says of her parents.
Hallman has been to many different counselors, but has yet to find one who actually made a significant difference in her life. They weren’t all bad. Hallman says that bits and pieces of what certain psychiatrists said or did helped, but none were ever enough. She thinks counselors need to find a way of actively changing someone’s life – not just talking to them, but actually going out and doing positive things with their clients.
“They need to figure out how to deal with a person like me,” she says.
She found that the friends who were there for her, the ones who were available to talk and to listen, and the ones who let her cry when she needed to, were the friends who helped her most. Many of the people that helped Hallman through this ordeal were people at the church she attended, and the ones she felt she could call at anytime and ask for advice. She found solace in “people who have been through it and aren’t scared of it. If it’s handled properly, it’s not scary.”
What is it that makes someone want to hurt or even kill themselves?
Chris Alksnis, a psychology professor at Laurier Brantford, says a number of factors can contribute to a person wanting to end their life.
These can be mental health problems, such as depression or schizophrenia, or substance abuse and outside pressures. To people with suicidal thoughts, nothing feels like it’s going right and they cannot picture a brighter future for themselves. When they reach that breaking point, the only option they may see is suicide.
“It can be an incredibly stressful, traumatic event… but other times it’s not always clear,” says Alksnis.
Canada does not have any governmental program in place to help those who are dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts, so those affected need to rely on personal support networks. Primary prevention involves helping people learn coping skills and teaching them to look for the positive aspects of their lives. Removing certain items like razors and knives from a suicidal person’s possession is another option.
In Britain, says Alksnis, a suicide trend developed in which victims were using the gas from ovens to take their lives, so gas ovens were replaced by their electric counterparts.
Therapists try to assess the risk of a second suicide attempt when working with people who have survived one already. After determining the level of safety, they begin to deal with a person’s mindset. Alksnis says therapists work at getting to the roots of why individuals wanted to die in the first place, and seeing if afterwards they are grateful to still be alive. Things like the loss of a child or partner can make someone believe nothing good remains in their life, and these experiences can lead them to believe they would be better off dead.
However, she points out experiences don’t always drive a person to suicide. The feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that are often the biggest contributing factor make it “hard to pull them away from the brink.”
When dealing with a person who has either attempted suicide or been affected by someone who has committed suicide, people often try to be “hands off, or respectful,” says Alksnis. This doesn’t always work. They will want to talk through their grief, and not allowing them to do so can isolate them. She suggests taking the lead from the other person, and offering to be there for them if they feel they need to talk, saying “the bottom line is, you can’t make it better, all you can do is be there for them.”
Alksnis feels education about suicide in schools could help raise awareness about the issue and lead to better suicide prevention techniques in the future. Currently, there is a resistance towards education about suicide in schools, especially at the younger levels where teens are more likely to be thinking suicidal thoughts. Alksnis says schools need to make it okay to talk about and open up the conversation. Those suffering from suicidal thoughts need to know they aren’t different for feeling that way and getting help doesn’t make them weak. There is a general fear that if teachers begin talking to children and teens about the thoughts they are having, they will “plant the seeds” in their minds about suicide, but this is simply not true. “If somebody wasn’t thinking about it before… they’re [still] not going to think it’s a great idea,” she says.
In an email interview, Paul Reifenstein, the Residence Life Coordinator, outlined the training dons receive in order to deal with suicidal students. “We were very excited to be able to provide the team this year with safeTalk training during our August Dons’ Camp. “Safe” stands for Suicide Alertness For Everyone and “Talk” stands for Tell, Ask, Listen, Keepsafe,” he says. The point of this training is to teach the dons how to open up the conversation about suicide, and to teach them how to respond to the variety of students they would be dealing with in the upcoming year. After going through the safeTalk steps, the Residence Life management team is able to come in and handle the situation. The management team is trained in Asist, which stands for Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, and are available to help the dons at any time.
There is more that can be done to raise awareness about suicide, but Alksnis believes that there are changes being made. She says Counseling Services are doing their part by being accessible, and having lots of resources available to those who need them. The best advice she can give on helping a friend in trouble is being there for them to talk, and to “make those opportunities.”
As for Christine, she says “don’t overreact, but know when it’s gone too far and when to ask for help.” Currently, she is working towards making good friendships and getting into some sort of social work. While she still struggles with depression, she seems more at ease now.
For more information on suicide prevention, or where to go for help, call Counseling Services at (519) 756-8228, extension 5889 or visit www.suicideprevention.ca.