Beyond blame and toward understanding
Reaction to Nicole’s story shows attitudes about suicide, mental health are changing
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. firstname.lastname@example.org 905-526-3539 | @susanclairmont
Carolyn Patenaude with Nicole, Emily, Rebekah and Jeannette. Nicole died by suicide on May 16.