David Harris has a picture of his son Cameron that was taken when he was seven years old.
“He just made the Select 7 all-star team. During the game he scored four goals, comes off the ice, looks right at me and says, ‘Dad I’m going to the NHL!’ And then right after that they took this picture of him. It’s one of the nicest memories I have of him. It was such an innocent and uplifting moment as a proud dad.”
Cameron took his own life on Feb. 14, 2005 at the age of 19.
“He hung himself and, along with Cameron’s mom, we found him.”
“That picture stayed in a drawer for five years, I couldn’t even look at it,” says Harris.
The nature of Cameron’s death is far from rare. In Alberta alone, there are more than 500 deaths by suicide every year, says Mara Grunau, the executive director of the Centre for Suicide Prevention.
Of those 500 deaths, 75 per cent are men, says Grunau.
“Frankly, male suicides outnumber female suicides everywhere in the world except China and India,” she says.
For Harris, Cameron’s death forever, and irreversibly, changed his life. And the tragedy prompted many overwhelming questions.
“What did I do wrong? How did I let him down? What did I do wrong as a parent?”
Due to the scope of male suicide in Alberta and around the globe, he is not alone in these questions.
But in the wake of such pain, Harris has also found a way to make a difference. He is just one Canadian suicide survivor fighting to stem the tide of male losses to suicide.
Why are males taking their own lives?
Joy Pavelich lost her son Eric on Aug. 5, 2013 when he took his own life at the age of 20.
Now the leader of community engagement with the Canadian Mental Health Association Calgary branch, Pavelich says that causes for suicide can be hard to pin down.
“What I find about suicide is a lot of people want to blame one thing but suicide is incredibly complex. There’s so many pieces of it and I feel more like they layer on top of each other.”
Pavelich’s own son was “an incredibly sensitive soul.” He played hockey, was a mixed martial artist and was her personal trainer, something she recalls fondly.
But he also experienced significant trauma, bullying in school and had dealt with his own mental health struggles.
“You couldn’t help but be captured by his energy but when he wasn’t well it was terrifying,” says Pavelich.
“He was as scared of his highs as he was of his lows because it was so good to feel so good. But then he always knew there was going to be a corresponding pain point.”
Pavelich says she put her life on hold in an attempt to get Eric the resources he needed but in the end, it wasn’t enough.
She says females attempt suicide more often but generally “males choose more lethal suicide.”
Grunau agrees, saying females attempt five times more often than men, despite only accounting for 25 per cent of Alberta suicides.
Part of the challenge with regards to male suicide, says Grunau, is that in broad sociological terms, “It’s okay for women to ask for help, it’s not okay for men to.”
Tanya Sealock, a mental health resilience trainer for the Calgary Fire Department, says she often sees this “shut up and buck up” mentality when helping male first responders manage their own mental health.
She also saw it in her own brother, Darren Clark, who took his life on April 5, 2015 at the age of 37 years old.
Despite struggling with mental health and addiction, Clark was adept at covering his pain. He was an energetic man, always in pursuit of knowledge and adventure.
“It’s amazing to me how people like that, outwardly can be like nothing’s wrong. He’s the life of the party, he’s a conversationalist, he can walk into a room where he didn’t know a soul and walk out knowing everybody,” says Sealock.
But she says for many men, talking about personal struggles is equivalent to showing weakness.
Sealock says the “broaden those shoulders and get on with it” attitude is prevalent among many first responders she works with.
“The guys were always the providers. They’re the fixers, right? So they can’t possibly be having any mental health issues or struggles.”
But in the end, she says this lack of vulnerability means that when a man finally does break down, it’s a “hard crash.”
This is something all surviving loved ones of male suicide can attest to.
“[Cameron] had created such an environment for himself within his own mind, he just felt that this was his only alternative. And it’s just such a final thing. There’s no coming back,” says Harris.
While still trying to make sense of their losses, Harris, Pavelich and Sealock are using their experiences to foster change.
For Harris, running played an instrumental role in his ability to cope with losing his son and eventually became his own way to give back.
He credits running with saving his life following the loss. It became his “fall-back position.”
He completed his first marathon just three months after Cameron’s death. He then resolved to run 19 consecutive Mississauga Marathons, each representing a year of his son’s life.
“Fifteen will be my next one and I’ll be celebrating his 15th year on the planet.”
In 2005 Harris founded an organization called Cameron Helps, now called Team Unbreakable, designed to raise awareness surrounding teen suicide.
The organization adopted a 12-week running program in 2009, designed to help kids with mental health struggles. The program is intentionally non-competitive and culminates in a 5 km celebration run.
“The whole premise behind it is to be proactive and that if there is a student perhaps that has suicidal thoughts or is suffering from depression or anxiety and so on, that they reach out early as opposed to late,” says Harris.
Today, Team Unbreakable is in some 170 schools in Ontario and has seen more than 10,000 kids take part.
Harris speaks at high schools and community associations, where he tells his own story. He says honesty really is the best policy when it comes to preventing suicide.
“Vulnerability is power. Opening yourself up and being open and honest about a difficult situation with others, knowing that it could potentially help them - that’s a powerful thing.”
Now with the Calgary office of the CMHA, Pavelich says taking a leadership role in facilitating other survivors’ grief has actually been instrumental to her own healing.
“I believe that’s what’s kept me going,” she says.
The CMHA offers bereavement counsellors and a peer support program. They hope those who have lost someone to suicide can, in turn, support others in their journeys.
“I think if we recognize the tragedy that exists and the volume of people who are dealing with this then maybe it will make people feel less alone,” says Pavelich.
Just this month, the CMHA ran Survivors of Suicide Loss Day for individuals who have lost someone to suicide to connect, be encouraged and support one another.
“The only way we can tackle these issues is by bringing the conversations into the light.”
“I’m not alone”
Sealock agrees that talking about these issues is the only way we can begin to change them. She uses her experience of personal tragedy to inform her current work, where she offers one on one support and takes part in various speaking engagements.
Just last year, Sealock spoke at the CMHAs Survivors of Suicide Loss Day in Calgary. This September she did the same at a suicide awareness conference for first responders.
She says the goal is to have her story “resonate with one person” and make them realize, “I’m not alone.”
“I am most content, most happy and most satisfied when I am doing that stuff,” she says.
Distress Centre Calgary (403) 266-4357
- By Blaise Kemna