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A Fight to Choose Life

Jean Oliver has been thinking about suicide for the last six years. At 52, she still remembers going into the hospital with an X-Acto blade in her hand and asking the nurses for help.
Jean Oliver (left) and Marguerite Gayfer plan the first-ever Victoria Human Chain and D.O.T.S. Rally for suicide prevention.

Jean Oliver has been thinking about suicide for the last six years. At 52, she still remembers going into the hospital with an X-Acto blade in her hand and asking the nurses for help. She was released after only a consultation because she “didn’t fit the criteria” for someone suicidal. Oliver started cutting herself at home and has survived four suicide attempts, using alcohol and pills. She tried to check herself into the hospital twice more, and was rejected each time.

Oliver, a single mother with two young boys, has battled depression her whole life. In 2005, she was hit by a car while riding her Honda scooter. The accident left her with a head injury and unable to work. Depression crept into her life deeper than ever before.

“I was so desperate to keep myself safe for my kids, and I thought, at least if I get to the hospital they can do something,” Oliver says. “To this day, it seems like sometimes I have to keep moving to get away from it, like there’s a pack of wolves just waiting behind my back.”

Oliver is now in recovery. She has had no mood-altering substances — even coffee and sugar — since last July. In an effort to stand up for all those who struggle with dark thoughts, she is turning her efforts to form the first-ever Victoria Human Chain and D.O.T.S. (Development of Treatment Services) Rally. The Victoria rally, an offshoot of a 2009 east coast suicide awareness event, will take place Sept. 10 during International Suicide Prevention Day. Oliver hopes to find 1,200 people willing to stand and link arms to “connect the dots” from the downtown legislature buildings to the Royal Jubilee Hospital.

Slipping through the cracks

According to 2009 statistics, approximately 3,750 people die by suicide each year in Canada, with one child (age 12 to 18) dying by suicide every day. As hard as Oliver’s own situation has been, it wasn’t until both of her sons, each at age 17, became suicidal that she truly felt the gravity of the situation — especially when she watched the lackadaisical hospital care one of her sons received.

“Every time we delay getting a strategy in place in our health system, we’re losing our loved ones, we’re losing our children,” Oliver says.

While the event may be months away, Oliver is looking for volunteers, resources, donations and even legal assistance to make sure the event takes flight. Finding 1,200 people to stand up for a highly stigmatized topic is tough enough, but Oliver is determined to do it in style — each person will become a “dot” by being outfitted with a T-shirt and sticker to symbolize the spaces between the silence around suicide.

“For some people, every waking minute is a battle against that voice inside your head telling you, ‘this is the way out,’” Oliver says. “Maybe I’m not someone who’s going to grab a piece of glass and cut myself in front of you, but that doesn’t mean I’m not in real trouble. If someone is asking for attention, we need to give it to them. There’s no such thing as ‘seeking attention for fun.’ We need to find out what’s wrong.”

Lana Popham, NDP MLA for Saanich South, has joined the project and hopes to see the event act as a call to action. Although a National Strategy for Suicide Prevention bill failed this year, Popham says the bill is up for review again and could make some real changes.

“The rally is really a political statement, and a very strong one at that,” she says. “The idea of holding hands is really a statement on how we can connect the dots in B.C., and how we fit into a national strategy.”

Popham herself has lost two friends to suicide — something she recognizes can have additional trauma due to the stigmas.

“Unfortunately, when it comes to mental health, people feel like they have to hide it,” she says. “No one wanted to say [the deaths] were suicides. Mental health is a disease, and we should be able to talk about it the way we would any disease that can claim a life.”

Popham encourages people to write to their MLAs and mention the importance of the DOTS program.

“You see people who have fallen through the cracks, and often they come to us when it’s too late — when they’re already in crisis,” Popham says. “What we have to look at is what’s happening before it gets to that point.”

While people will be invited to write the names of loved ones on the dot stickers, one thing Oliver and Popham are seeking is stories of others who have had experiences with suicide, either from a survivor or family member standpoint. Telling those stories is just as important as exposing the event itself, says Oliver.

“You never hear people say ‘he committed cancer,’ and yet we know lung cancer can be caused by smoking,” Oliver says. “But they didn’t do it to themselves, it happened to them. Suicide is completely preventable. People make the mistake of thinking that someone can just snap out of it, but they have a disease. No amount of shaming is going to help. They need support, they need treatment.”

In time, Oliver hopes to see resources, like pamphlets and support networking, given to people who enter hospitals with suicidal concerns. She’d also like to see an emphasis placed on developing youth-focused mental health wings. Meanwhile, she says part of addressing the problem comes simply as offering support.

Marguerite Gayfer, 83, has lived in Victoria for 20 years and has been Oliver’s neighbour for the last 15 years or so. During that time, she became Oliver’s confidant, support system and family.

“She needs support, being a single mother, and one does what one can,” says Gayfer, who will be standing beside Oliver as a dot in the September rally. “We’ll be there for her, just helping. That’s what we’re all here for — just helping each other.”

Gayfer says that while she’s had no other previous experience with suicide issues in her own life, she’s always believed in Oliver. Oliver, meanwhile, says Gayfer has “always quietly been there, bailed me out, believed in me and never judged me.” That freedom from judgment is more important than people realize, she adds.

“So much about suicide prevention is telling someone to just hang on, just for now,” says Oliver. “Don’t think about anything else, don’t worry about tomorrow, just hang on — I’ve got you. Right now, I’ve got you.” M

D.O.T.S.For more information, contact Jean Oliver at Or find her on Facebook. For resources, visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention