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Say it like it is

How many suicides do you know about personally? Chances are, far more than you ever hear reported in the media.

Live in Toronto, and you’ve probably been on a subway train delayed by a jumper. Live in Halifax near the big bridges, and if you’re not hearing stories now, you’ve heard about them in the past.

So why don’t you hear about them in the media as well? Well, for suicides and a lot of other things, officialdom feels that the public just can’t handle the truth.

It’s hard to disguise when a sudden death has occurred: the police arrive, neighbourhoods know something’s up, and often, the media hears about it. But the message released by the police is considerably muddied. The language is laundered, but it’s there if you know what you’re looking for; often, the clue is when police issue a release saying “no foul play is suspected.”

They won’t go further than that, perhaps from some hold-over about the supposed embarrassment of having someone in your family take thier own life.

It’s not the only place where police-speak, or maybe official-speak, glosses over the cold, hard facts: when there’s been a pair of deaths and police say that they have no reason to believe that the public is at risk, chances are pretty good  there’s been a murder-suicide, often a domestic murder-suicide where a man has killed his partner and then himself.

But it’s not just violent crime: ask yourself how many times you’ve heard that there’s been an accident, but at least one of the people involved has “suffered serious but not life-threatening injuries.” Sounds like they are going to be OK, right?

Well, no. You just have to parse the phrase a little more carefully.

“Serious but not life-threatening” essentially encompasses any injury where the person survives: you might survive with extensive, life- and personality-changing head injuries. You might never walk again. You might be in line for a series of surgeries and recovery periods that never really even get you close to the life you used to live. But outside the confines of your immediate family and friends, that high-speed highway wreck is dismissed pretty quickly by the casual reader or listener: serious injuries, but they’ll live. They’ll be fine. Our highways are safe.

As cautionary tales go, the punchline is clearly missing: highway accidents can and do do permanent, lasting damage.

I’m sure that police forces mean well; they have the best of intentions in protecting families at a time of loss and they try to protect the privacy of people whose lives (and sometimes deaths) are thrust into the spotlight.

That’s laudable — why should the public get to know every piece of a family’s private pain?

But we can’t, as a society, deal with issues unless we know what they are.

If past statistics in Canada hold true, at least 3,700 people will commit suicide this year in this country. That’s more than the entire populations of Port Hawkesbury, N.S. or Montague, P.E.I. It’s also a broad and telling cry for help.

But we won’t hear that cry if, for some reason connected to common decency, we’re not even allowed to know what happened.

More clarity about what’s happened will help us all see a little more clearly.

Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic Regional columnist. He can be reached at; his column appears on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays in TC Media’s daily papers.

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