I won my battle with suicide, but I was one of the lucky ones

First published at Huffington Post on September 10, 2012.

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. If you weren’t aware, worry not. If you have a pulse, you’re doing your part to celebrate. There was a time not too long ago where I wasn’t planning on being around for the occasion.

I am a suicide survivor.

I’d love to say that this honorific comes from an unfortunately spontaneous moment in my adolescence following an F in biology, but the incident in question happened nearly two years ago. Despite a happy family life and a rapidly growing career in media, I wanted out.

On December 9, 2010, I went to a public washroom, downed a container of pills and counted down what I thought were my final hours. Tomorrow was never supposed to come.

Though I didn’t become one of the 4,000 deaths by suicide in Canada that year, I came close. My overdose put me in critical care for several weeks, comatose, and I needed to be repeatedly resuscitated after four cardiac arrests. I was dead for 90 minutes.

This wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. It was planned — for a couple of weeks, in fact. In the time leading up to my attempt, I knew when and how I was going to do it. Regardless, I spent time with family, friends and co-workers, not to mention making national television and radio appearances. No one knew anything was wrong. No one was supposed to.

Surviving an attempt has its own difficulties. In addition to dealing with the emotional issues that led to the decision, I was forced to deceive those I cared about as to the reason for my hospitalization.

My decision to reveal this was rooted in my frustration at society’s stigma towards those with mental illness and the lack of understanding about suicide. Sure, there are risk factors for suicide attempts, but the urge to die and the willpower to act on it can fall upon anyone. Rich or poor, black or white, male or female, university educated or high school drop-out.

For me, a white, middle-class male with a university education, a loving family and a good job, most would assume suicide was the last thing on my mind. Had I decided to reveal my deathly desire to a loved one, I would have been hit with any number of clichés: “You have so much going for you,” “You have people who love you,” “The world is your oyster,” etc.

All of them would be true. The fact is, none of that mattered.

To explain my reasons for trying to commit suicide in a single blog would be impossible, but the easiest way to sum it up is to say that I felt a lack of direction in my life. Several projects I had been working on had come to an end there was a perceived void in my life as a result.

My suicide attempt was not logical, but it was calculated. I knew what I was doing and I knew what I wanted. My refusal to seek help was simply because I didn’t want help. Having now had a glimpse of our country’s mental health system from the inside, I know it needs work. It also needs money. But our country’s biggest hurdle toward mental wellness is not a lack of funding, it’s a lack of understanding.

The first step to eliminating suicide is in understanding its indiscriminate nature. Despite the success of the “It Gets Better” campaign, suicide affects a broader group than gay teenagers. The media inundates us with cases of gay teenagers who commit suicide, but ignores the painful reality that adolescence can be just as difficult for straight kids.

The second step is recognizing that mental illness is, as its name suggests, a form of illness. Of all who have opened up to me about their struggles with depression and other afflictions, none seem to have chosen it. “Just smile” is hardly a prescription for the suicidal, but it seems to be the best advice many are able to offer.

To those with family members or friends struggling, reach out and let them know you care. Let them know it’s okay to seek help. To those in distress, you’re not alone. Asking for help is a show of strength, not weakness.

I won my battle with suicide, but the war wages on. Let’s end it.

Sympathize with Karen Klein, but don’t send her money

First published at Huffington Post on June 22, 2012.

Earlier this week, the internet erupted with a video of 68-year old Greece, New York bus monitor Karen Klein being viciously bullied and berated by a group of four middle schoolers.

The students poked and prodded Klein while dropping every four letter word imaginable in between repeated comments on the woman’s hair style, appearance and family situation. The appalling video has become more of a sensation than last year’s Casey Heynes video, where an Australian teenager fought back against a bully — and won.

Since the New York bus video shot to popularity, Klein has done interviews with all of the major cable networks and umpteen national newspapers to share her side of the story. She’s honest, not particularly eloquent, and does not seek revenge. All she wants is an apology.

Whether or not Klein will receive the apology she seeks is still unknown, but she will be receiving a large, as-of-yet undetermined sum of money for her ordeal. On Wednesday, a Toronto blogger put a fundraising goal of $5,000 on Indiegogo.com, hoping to raise some money for Karen Klein to take a vacation. In 24 hours, $340,000 had been raised, with the number still rising (the amount at the time of publishing is $540,000).

Neither Klein nor anyone in her family requested this money, and it is her choice as to what she does with it, but she doesn’t deserve it.

The more-than-16,000 strangers who have donated to Klein in merely a day are hopping on a bandwagon that made the bus monitor the overnight postergirl for bullying. However, Klein’s reality is just as real to countless young children and teenagers who endure this ridicule on a daily basis. Those youngsters aren’t blessed with six-figure donations for their troubles.

Every epithet and threat Karen Klein had to endure on her fateful Monday afternoon bus ride was one of the many that I heard on a daily basis. I’m not alone.

Nearly all of the bad words in my vocabulary today are there because they passed through my ears as I cried my way through elementary school and high school for years. I’m not jealous of Klein’s receipt of such a substantial gift, although, if such a campaign were started for me I doubt I’d complain. My issue is with the thousands of people who found it so easy to put their credit card number into a website to help a woman unknown to them a week prior rather than taking action on the broader bullying epidemic.

Parents of bullies are often ignorant to their children’s schoolyard behaviour. Parents of the bullied are usually kept in the dark by their children. Parents of the bystanders are just happy their children aren’t in one of the other groups. Everyone has a responsibility to take an interest in bullying. Writing a check is not taking an interest.

What happens when Klein cashes her check and the world moves on? Until another video gets posted, likely nothing.

We shouldn’t need to wait for evidence of one person’s troubles to be blasted across televisions and radios around the world to be aware of an issue that will outlive the hype of Karen Klein.

What’s to stop non-citizens from voting in our elections?

First published in the National Post on October 5, 2011.

As a result of a recent relocation, I wasn’t on the voters list in my riding for the upcoming Ontario provincial election. So, when I showed up to vote in the advance polls, I had to show my driver’s licence and a piece of mail — my phone bill, as it so happens — to prove identity, age and residency. No problem. But something neither of these documents did was verify my citizenship.

Citizenship is, in theory, a fundamental criterion in voting eligibility. Now, perhaps I’m being unfair in not considering the possibility that citizenship verification takes place on some sort of psychic, metaphysical level by the attending poll clerk, or, perhaps, merely a behavioural profile on whether the would-be voter exudes the essence of Canadian-ness. But I doubt it. I’m more apt to wager on a profoundly simpler idea: Elections Ontario, much like its national counterpart, doesn’t verify citizenship of electors.

A couple of years ago, (thankfully) former Toronto mayor David Miller backed an unpopular proposal to allow non-Canadians residing in Toronto to vote in municipal elections. That would have been a first for Canada. In the last federal election, Michael Ignatieff’s wife was unable to cast a ballot to support her husband due to her citizenship status. (Little did Mrs. Zsohar know that as long as she could drive or had a health card, no one would have stopped her from giving her husband a much-needed sympathy vote.)

What would happen if a non-citizen, armed with phone bill and driver’s licence, went to vote and, by coincidence, the polling clerk happened to know for a fact that they weren’t a Canadian citizen? Could they be prevented from casting a ballot? A phone call to Elections Ontario to pose that very question had a confused customer service agent ask me, “What do you mean? You need to be a citizen to vote.” How enlightening.

The non-statement from Elections Ontario aside, it’s well established that foreign citizens have voted in Canadian elections. I know of at least one American who voted in our last election, and a French citizen who had to call Elections Canada to explain that she was ineligible to receive the voter cards they were sending her. Tales of foreign citizens voting in our elections have even been reported in the media, typically as curiosities.

Much has been written about the historical pattern of politicians in Chicago wooing the graveyard vote, but those indiscretions are minute compared to the systemic indifference to non-Canadians being able to vote in Canadian federal, provincial and municipal elections.

There are 1.5 million non-citizen residents of Canada over the age of 18. There is little to stop any or all of them from influencing our democracy. Forget “foreign workers.” A better use of time during the current campaign would have been figuring out how to update our election laws to rule out any interference by foreign voters.