Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Mental Health and Suicide

I was watching the CBC National news the other night where there was an in-depth piece on youth suicide and calls for "mental health" curricula in Canada's schools. As much as I feel for the families who've lost loved ones to suicide and especially the father of the 11 year old with MS who died because of bullying, I'm very concerned about formalizing a "mental health" curriculum.

In Nunavut I'm sure all Inuit have felt the devastation of suicide by a family member, siblings and friends (note, both in the plural) who choose to take their own lives. But I don't think much that suicide-by-Inuit have to do with "mental illness" per se but rather like the NHLer who committed suicide recently have more to do with dismal life prospects and being overwhelmed by feelings of not being equipped to deal with life of poverty, feeling stuck in a community, and general malaise brought about by under-education.

I don't think suicide can be approached directly. In fact, "professionalizing" mental illness makes things much worse because a piece of paper does not mean one is an expert in mental health (much of the field deals with pathological problems rather than health choices and healthy living). Once someone is told and suggested that something is "wrong" with them the label becomes almost impossible to get out of, and many, many people cannot survive such labels by professionals.

The problem rather, I surmise from our problems in the aboriginal communities, has to do with how our children are taught. The school systems assume a universalist, secular education which mistake liberal arts education and ethical discourse as almost an evil; dedicated space for self-examination and reflection on value systems have little or no room in the classrooms. In this age of cartoon, "reality shows" and video-games violence our children are not psychologically equipped to deal with what is and is not reality and what society reasonably expects from them as functioning members of their communities. So in effect and consequence our children are raising each other in a world, a subculture that can be extremely violent, vain, short-sighted and brutish.

I have not seen or heard of one school that tried to adapt to counter these factors in a serious and long-standing way. It seems so much more politically convenient to come up with suicide prevention strategies than to examine the root causes for violence, social dysfunction, and suicide (that which ferment and arise from the invisible world of children).

Social conservatism belittles and mistrusts popular culture and lump it into one big, undesirable blob when so much of it is created by very insightful and thoughtful social commentators that are the serious artists of our day. Doing this belittles the feelings and truths of their own children and closes off their means and methods of self-expression. Even the least of us feels that we have a story to tell; taking our voice away is criminal, nay unforgivable. Even more so to deny moral and ethical guidance to shape and inform the growing minds of our children in a safe environment when and while self-expression is the most important thing. The only thing.

A liberal arts education creates well-roundedness in those educated in it. But it's something not really amenable to easy compartmentalization such like shop, physical ed, music, language arts because grading ethical and moral fortitude is impossible. Though choice of topics for language arts is the foundation of liberal arts and taking shop could develop a sense of self-sufficiency and creativity given only its regard by the teachers.

Bringing the "experts" in now will destroy any chance of our children's sense of well-being, and they'll forever become ghosts floating and drifting through life who are extremely conversant in psycho-babble and making up excuses for behaving if not badly then aversed to self-improvement.


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