Take the time: Mental health concerns

On Mother’s Day today, I was fortunate to be able to spend time with my amazing mom at a Blue Jays game. She’s a huge baseball fan; after my dad and I surprised her with the tickets, she got her backpack ready in under 8 minutes. If you knew her, you’d understand this is nothing short of a miracle.

But on the way downtown, driving down the Don Valley Parkway, something happened that changed everything.

We pulled onto the highway southbound at Don Mills, and groaned collectively because there was a huge traffic jam. We were stressed about making the game (since I’d spent more than $15 on tickets for once), but remained in high spirits – until we realized what had caused the gridlock.

When we looked up at the bridge, we saw a fire engine. And passing along the shoulder of the highway were two ambulances. That’s when we understood that someone had jumped  off the bridge and committed suicide.

At that moment, there was complete silence. No car was honking, no one was yelling out the window, there was no music blasting. In a Toronto traffic jam, this is incredibly rare.

But when someone jumps off a bridge to deliberately harm themself, it sobers you. It makes you realize there are always worse things. So as we crept along the highway in shock, everyone was polite. Cars parted to make room for other cars. Everyone forgot their hurry.

Though I was paying my silent respects, as a human, tragedies draw out our most innate and disturbing curiosities. I know for as long as I can remember, when I’ve seen emergency vehicles, I’ve craned my neck to see the accident. It’s fascinating, and I know I’m not alone.

The suicide had happened so damn recently that the police and ambulances hadn’t yet covered the deceased with a sheet. We were one of the first cars to pass the body. Even though my mother warned me not to, I looked. I had to see it.

And what I saw was a woman splayed face down on the pavement. She had dark hair, and wore a t-shirt and capris. She looked like she could have been hugging the road but was eerily still. From our position I couldn’t see her face, but I didn’t need to. I saw the blood.

I also saw the first witnesses who had pulled over; whether in vain hope to help the woman or to avoid running over her vacant body, I’m not sure. They were speaking to the police, and looked as traumatized as you can imagine. I doubt they’ll ever be the same.

I know after first glance, my heart dropped through my body. I was shocked by the candidness and how starkly wrong the image was. Of course you hear about suicides happening and may even picture them, but being an eyewitness to the messy aftermath is far different.

As a human, as well as someone who has had mental health problems and knows many people who have experienced them, this was indescribably hard to see. Though I can’t make any assumptions about her life and her demons, what I saw was a woman who ran out of options, of hope, and of possibilities.

When you suffer from mental health problems, sometimes the black fog creeps up and suffocates you to the point that you see no escape. It weighs on your soul and makes you think differently. There are no words to describe how hard it can be to see the metaphorical light at the end of that tunnel. Many fortunate people, like myself, receive help to find that light.

What affected me most about seeing this woman laying dead on the highway was that she must have truly believed she had no access to help. If she had called a loved one while standing on that bridge and asked for a friendly shoulder, would she still be with us? There’s no way to know.

But I know for me personally, having a community of support has been immensely helpful. Knowing you have people who love you and want to see you happy is sometimes all it takes to escape the fog.

As I was sitting at the Blue Jays game, watching my parents cuss at the umpire (as you’re wont to do in Toronto), I felt blessed, and then I felt guilty. A person received a life-changing phone call from the police earlier today and discovered the woman on the highway – a loved one – had made an irreversible choice. That person who picked up the phone would never again be able to sit across the table from her and enjoy a meal, watch her laugh, and discover her quirks. I’m grateful that I got to do those things with two of my favourite people today, though I wish that woman had another chance to do the same.

On days like today when we appreciate and spend time with our loved ones, it’s an important reminder that we need to stay in touch. We need to check in with the people we care about to make sure that things are okay, or at least are tolerable; if they aren’t, we need to offer a friendly shoulder.

So I implore you to reach out to the people you love. Suicide can be avoided. I’m incredibly saddened that the dark haired woman in the capris and t-shirt thought she only had one path available, and ended up being covered with a sheet. If someone is experiencing these problems, the mere offer of a friendly face and open arms can be all it takes to change their life.

If you’re having thoughts of committing self-violence, please call this hotline in Canada: 1 (866) 996-0991. And if you believe a loved one is experiencing mental health issues, all it takes to change their life is the offer of help. Here are some resources to learn more.

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