Be­yond blame and to­ward un­der­stand­ing

Re­ac­tion to Nicole’s story shows at­ti­tudes about sui­cide, men­tal health are chang­ing

The Hamilton Spectator - - LOCAL - SUSAN CLAIRMONT

I was braced for back­lash to Nicole’s story.

I was pre­pared for it be­cause it has hap­pened be­fore, in vi­cious and some­times per­sonal at­tacks. I have been ac­cused of be­ing dis­re­spect­ful, ghoul­ish and in­tent on selling pa­pers.

Twice be­fore I have writ­ten long ac­counts of peo­ple who have died by sui­cide. The first was in 2011, five years af­ter Hamil­ton Po­lice Const. Roy Jones took his own life with his ser­vice gun while on duty.

Then again in 2015 when Hamil­ton Const. Daryl Archer snuck his gun home from work.

In each case I wrote with the full co-op­er­a­tion and bless­ing of fam­ily. In fact, they came to me and asked me to write their sto­ries. They be­lieved talk and education is a big part of con­quer­ing stigma.

And still, the crit­i­cism was sharp. Sto­ries like that should not be told, some said. Sui­cide should be pri­vate — even if the fam­ily wants to speak pub­licly.

Like those other fam­i­lies, Nicole Pate­naude’s mother Carol and three sis­ters wanted her story told.

On May 16, Nicole, 20, jumped off a bridge onto Hwy. 403. In a long piece in Satur­day’s Spec­ta­tor, I told the story of her life, her strug­gle with men­tal ill­ness and her sui­cide.

I have spent many hours with Carol and her re­main­ing girls. They wel­comed me into their home just days af­ter Nicole’s death. We talked for four hours. We have since spent many more hours to­gether and have been in con­tact al­most daily.

They were in­volved in this story ev­ery step of the way, of­ten putting me in touch with peo­ple who knew Nicole.

One of the most sur­pris­ing in­ter­views I con­ducted for the story was with staff at St. Joseph’s Hos­pi­tal. That in­ter­view was sur­pris­ing just by virtue of the fact that it hap­pened.

Nicole was a pa­tient in the psy­chi­atric unit at St. Joe’s West 5th Cam­pus. She was on a com­mu­nity pass the day she died. Four oth­ers have died by sui­cide in the hos­pi­tal’s care in the past 18 months.

With Carol’s per­mis­sion, Dr. Peter Cook, chief psy­chi­a­trist, and Peter Biel­ing, head of men­tal health and ad­dic­tion ser­vices, spent nearly two hours with me dis­cussing Nicole, men­tal ill­ness and sui­cide. They were can­did and help­ful, though for some ques­tions there were no an­swers.

But I can’t help think that an in­ter­view like that may not have hap­pened six years ago or even two. So I am grate­ful to St. Joe’s for talk­ing to me.

I was hes­i­tant to con­tact Justin Hind, Nicole’s boyfriend, for the story. I knew of his men­tal health is­sues and I was un­sure if ap­proach­ing him for an in­ter­view would cause him harm, or if he could prop­erly con­sent.

Then Justin reached out to me and con­vinced me to in­clude him in the story. He was com­pletely will­ing to iden­tify him­self as men­tally ill. And he did so be­cause, like the Pate­naude fam­ily, he sees no shame in it.

Again, just a few years ago that open­ness was less com­mon among those I in­ter­viewed.

The most touch­ing in­ter­view I did, apart from with Nicole’s fam­ily, was with Sha­keel Hanif, fa­ther of 10-year-old Jas­min who was fa­tally hit by a ve­hi­cle on her Wa­ter­down street a few hours af­ter Nicole’s death. Nicole’s sui­cide led to traf­fic be­ing di­verted through Jas­min’s neigh­bour­hood.

Hanif placed no blame on Nicole. He had only com­pas­sion for her mother, who he en­cour­aged to tell Nicole’s story so change might hap­pen.

We have moved away from blame and to­ward un­der­stand­ing.

Then there are the tweets, the emails, the phone calls. More than a hun­dred. All but one thank­ing Carol for shar­ing Nicole’s story. For shar­ing Nicole.

Many of those re­sponses came from read­ers deal­ing with their own men­tal health is­sues. Al­most as many came from par­ents of chil­dren with men­tal ill­ness. Some came from par­ents of chil­dren who have died by sui­cide.

“It is my hope (and hunch) that Nicole’s story will help to in­spire thought­ful, con­struc­tive dis­cus­sion in the com­ing days and weeks,” wrote one reader.

And the Pate­naude fam­ily finds com­fort in that.

Susan Clairmont’s com­men­tary ap­pears reg­u­larly in The Spec­ta­tor. sclair­mont@thes­ 905-526-3539 | @su­san­clair­mont


Carolyn Pate­naude with Nicole, Emily, Rebekah and Jean­nette. Nicole died by sui­cide on May 16.

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