By Andru McCracken,
Valemount is experiencing an epidemic of self harm. Way too many people, especially men, have taken their own lives. I can count at least four deaths over the past year and a half.
What can we do as a community to change this?
Small communities are awesome. Because many of us know each other and have known each other for a very long time we are able to support each other in some peculiar ways. But there are some side effects to being so small: When we mess up, everybody knows.
Shame on me
I have experienced the smallness of our community as oppressive. When you are in a funk and feeling down, you look around at the people you see, who likely know something of what you are going through and are constantly reminded of your shortcomings or failures. For me it was losing two elections in a row. Even though no one said anything about it when we met, the fact that each and everyone knew about it and ‘could’ be thinking about it weighed heavy on me. At that point, ‘community’ failed to be positive and was more like torture.
Addiction and crime
A member of the local police department points to shame and community standing as the reason that Valemount can have both a high prevalence of drug use and an extraordinarily low property crime rate.
In Vancouver, if you get caught stealing something it is essentially between you and the courts. In Valemount, property crime can lose you any future potential for work in the community. It can bring down harsh reactions from family and friends and other community members – both real and imagined. Even if not everybody knows what has happened, it will feel like they do. So it’s a built-in security system preventing anyone who cares about their community standing from committing crime.
The fear of shame, in some ways, protects the community, but it’s too high a price if it comes at the expense of people’s lives.
Small but thoughtful
Being small is good. It can take care of the work that people are good at forgetting to do, like meeting people out of our friend group, and helping others outside our immediate family. Knowing people who aren’t exactly like us in age and income… these are the positives. But if our smallness also helps put people in boxes and doesn’t also provide a way out regardless of the actions they take to make amends, the consequences will always be disastrous.
Can we create opportunities for people who are at the edge to return to the fold? To do good, have fun, and reinvent themselves in the community? What we need is a path back into the community for people who’ve been ostracized for whatever reason, whether because of internal doubts, or even if they’ve done wrong and done their time.
Because the other consequence is this: The people who we lose by self harm don’t just disappear from our lives. Whatever happens, they live on amongst us through their families.
There are very few follies for which the sentence should be death. We have a responsibility to also bring people back into the fold.