Craig Miller in a shot from the documentary The S Word, which screened for the first time in Western Canada on March 22 in Winnipeg. (photo from MadPix, Inc.)
Jewish Child and Family Service of Winnipeg (JCFS) partnered with the Suicide Prevention Network and the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg’s Young Adult Division to show the documentary The S Word for the first time in Western Canada. The screening took place March 22 at the JCC Berney Theatre, and the event’s aim was to help put a stop to the silence surrounding the subject of suicide.
“Suicide is widespread and affects all age groups and communities,” said Carli Rossall, JCFS addictions and mental health caseworker. “There are many ‘S words’ that reinforce the behaviour around suicide, such as silence, stigma, shame and struggle. The hope is to turn this around into S words such as support, survival, sharing and solutions.”
Rossall has taken the lead in organizing this project, along with Cheryl Hirsh Katz, JCFS manager of adult services, and Shana Menkis, JCFS director of operations.
JCFS is a member of the Suicide Prevention Network, which is a group of agencies and individuals committed to enhancing the mental wellness and quality of life of people in Winnipeg, preventing suicides and supporting those bereaved by suicide.
“I think our goal with this [event] was to begin to create a safe space within the community where topics like suicide can be freely and openly discussed,” said Rossall. “Staying silent doesn’t make an issue cease to exist. Suicide is a reality in our community as it is in all communities. Healing requires openness, acceptance and dialogue. The more we talk about these things, the more fluency we develop when it comes to hard conversations, [and] the better equipped we all are to support one another.”
“Bringing this film to our city and specifically to this community,” Hirsh Katz added, “will hopefully give a voice to this problem and put a face to the solution.”
The S Word aims to open the conversation surrounding suicide. Its director, Lisa Klein, is a survivor of both her father’s and her brother’s suicides. In the film, she wanted to show the voices of those who survived suicide attempts, as well as others, to provide an honest portrayal of the thoughts and feelings surrounding suicide. She further wanted to provide positive messaging.
“It’s an outstanding collection of stories that, unlike other films on the same subject, shines a light on hope,” said Klein. “It talks about language, relationships, relapses in mental health, and about how recovery is rarely a straight trajectory. It’s very real and raw. I consider it to be one of the best mental health documentaries I’ve ever seen … unique in its approach to an otherwise familiar topic.
“We hear about suicide epidemics, about over- and under-medicating, about the bereaved when it comes to suicide in the community, but, rarely do we hear from survivors. Frankly, I don’t know if ‘survivor of suicide’ is a concept most people even know exists.”
“Loss is never easy to talk about,” said Rossall. “But, when loss gets tied together with morality, as suicide often does, an added layer of stigma exists. Anything that challenges our definition of ‘right,’ ‘moral’ or ‘normal’ tends to make us uncomfortable – and it often makes people look to blame.
“Generally,” she said, “people who have thoughts of suicide suffer from intense psychological pain, where there is a feeling of hopelessness, isolation, and no alternative. The reasons for this can vary, from those experiencing mental health challenges or physical illness, to those who have experienced trauma, are struggling financially or have addictions. The rise in suicide rates may be due to life’s increasing pressures and complex circumstances.”
It was in her late teens that Klein lost her father and then, three months later, her brother, to suicide.
“It’s something that obviously is a huge part of my life, my existence, and it wasn’t something that right away I knew what I’d do with,” said Klein. “It affected me greatly. I really didn’t know who to talk to. That was a big part of why I did this film, because it’s so difficult to talk to people when you’ve lost people. They don’t know what to say to you.
“When I came out to L.A. and went to graduate school, I did a film prior to this one…. We started to do documentaries. We did one on bipolar personalities and, when we did that one, we had someone who was in the film who had lost their daughter to suicide. I thought, OK, I’ve dealt with this. And then, almost immediately, I realized that I actually hadn’t. I thought it was time to do something, because people weren’t, and aren’t, talking about it enough, not talking about it responsibly.”
As Klein began researching the topic, she found a large community of people dealing with suicide – so great a number that they were holding conventions in the United States about it. Klein found this resource helpful when it came to finding specific stories to include in her film.
While The S Word is not yet widely available, Klein has worked to get the message across through teachers, mental health professionals and survivors. And she created a toolkit that is on the movie’s website that anyone can access to find ways to bring the message to their communities.
“We’ve signed with an educational distributor and eventually it will be available – probably in the late fall…. We want to help open the conversation, for sure,” said Klein. “We want people to feel less alone, like they’re not the only ones going through this. And we want people to know that they can be there for somebody else, too. Also, to know that, if you, yourself, are struggling, there are people to talk to.
“A lot of times, what can really kill people, what can drive people to this is the silence or the hopeless feeling of being alone – feeling that they have nobody to talk to, and the stigma and shame keep people from talking about it.
“We see this also in the rape culture and the whole #MeToo movement,” she added. “People who were so afraid to talk are now coming forward. And it’s so important to be able to do this. We want to be part of that conversation.”
Klein invited everyone to visit the film’s website – theswordmovie.com – for more information and to watch the many interviews conducted with suicide survivors that did not make it into the film (click on the “#SWordStories” link). She further encouraged people to send in written stories about their own experiences to the website.
In Winnipeg, JCFS is ready to help anyone in need, via their active mental health services program for the Jewish community and counseling services that are open to the general public. In Vancouver, Jewish Family Services is also ready to help.
“Through these supports, there are opportunities for individuals and families to address their concerns, feelings related to suicide, and other issues on a proactive basis,” said JCFS’s Hirsh Katz. “There are also several other community-based agencies in Winnipeg that provide both crisis and non-crisis work with suicide. The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention is a nationwide organization dedicated to offering support. Livingworks Education Inc. is a leading provider of suicide intervention training through various workshops – the training is focused on identifying, speaking and intervening with people who have thoughts of suicide, and it is invaluable for individuals ages 15 and over who want to help people be safer from suicide.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.