For Dr. Mark Sinyor, a crucial part of suicide prevention has to do with communication.
“We are trying to find ways of getting the truth out,” he says, “rather than the many misconceptions about suicide that have been perpetuated for a very long time. People want to understand suicide and what is to ‘blame,’ but we need to resist simplistic answers like the historical notion that suicide is the result of a single life stressor. Unfortunately, suicide is sometimes depicted as an inevitable outcome, with a de-emphasis on the role of treatable mental disorders. But none of this is the case at all.”
A staff psychiatrist with Sunnybrook’s Department of Psychiatry, Dr. Sinyor points out that people with mood disorders – depression and bipolar disorder – account for more than 50 per cent of all suicide deaths.
“There is no reason that anyone needs to die from suicide,” he says. “Suicidal crises are often fleeting and there are many ways in which we can intervene to help people through them. In virtually all cases, they are accompanied by a treatable mental disorder. Every suicide death is a tragic missed opportunity for someone to have gotten help.”
Timely care for the underlying disorder can be the key to preventing most of these tragedies.
“There is no reason that anyone needs to die from suicide.”
– Dr. Mark Sinyor, psychiatrist
Colin is one of Dr. Sinyor’s patients – and a case in point. For years, Colin’s bipolar condition remained undiagnosed. To all outward appearances, he appeared to be doing fine.
“Life is not only what happens on the outside,” says Colin, 29. “I was in pain all the time. I didn’t tell anyone at first that I was suicidal. I put on a good face, but I was crying when I was alone.”
After several suicide attempts, visits to multiple psychiatrists and a variety of medications, a friend’s intervention led Colin to Sunnybrook and a course of treatment under Dr. Sinyor’s supervision.
“I owe Sunnybrook my life,” says Colin.
That was over two years ago. Colin has since gotten married and now works at a job that he finds satisfying. He wants nothing more than to “stay like this – stable,” he says. “I know it’s going to be a struggle, but I’m surrounded by good people. I’m a lucky guy.”
His message to others like himself? “Reach out for help. Just do it.”
The stigma of mental illness continues to hinder treatment, which motivated philanthropists Glenn and Stacey Murphy of Toronto to donate $10-million to create the Murphy Family Centre for Mental Health at Sunnybrook. This new state-of-the-art inpatient facility will treat those with severe mental illness, including patients like Colin with mood and anxiety disorders. It will use a collaborative approach that frames mental illness as a disease like any other to reduce stigma and encourage treatment.
Colin’s case is the type of positive story Dr. Sinyor would like to see highlighted more often in the press. A scientist with the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Program at Sunnybrook, Dr. Sinyor cites research showing that the way the news media reports on the topic may significantly affect rates of suicide – and attempted suicide – in wider society.
“Suicide contagion” is a very real phenomenon. “When news reports are published emphasizing suicide methods or the inevitability of suicide, sadly, we see more suicide deaths,” Dr. Sinyor explains. “But the opposite is also true – resilience is also contagious. Research from Europe shows that when the media broadcasts stories like Colin’s, you see fewer suicide deaths afterwards.”
He notes that people are apt to identify with people depicted in the media they consume. “It is a fact that too many people still do die by suicide, but far more find ways to overcome it, and if you only publish stories about deaths, you’re sending a skewed picture to everybody – and a potentially dangerous picture. Our goal is to help shift things in a positive direction.”
Dr. Sinyor is currently creating a structure for collaboration between mental health professionals and journalists to better “inform the public in a way that sends accurate messages,” he says. “We’re not trying to censor journalists or tell them how to do their job,” notes Dr. Sinyor, who is the lead author on the Canadian Psychiatric Association’s updated media guidelines on suicide reporting. “Journalists need to be independent.”
Still, he believes more effort could be made to “create context” when reporting on suicide and to convey the key truths on the issue – that suicide is preventable, that there are other means of coping with life’s stresses, and that the vast majority of people who have suicidal thoughts never follow through. In short, suicide is not inevitable even when life appears hopeless.
“Journalists have a lot of power to influence the way people think and, to an extent, behave,” he says. “They need to exert that power in a way that’s safe and helpful. We are just trying to be a resource that they can call on for guidance.”
Ultimately, Dr. Sinyor would like his message to be a positive one. He points out that suicide rates in Toronto and in most westernized countries – the U.S. is the exception – have declined significantly in recent years.
“People are more willing to seek help,” he says, “and resources are increasing. It’s not all doom and gloom and people need to understand that. We’re making a dent. We need to decrease the stigma of these disorders, increase people’s ability to seek help, and send the message that there is hope.”