Montreal walk will shine light on suicide prevention

The Mental Health and Suicide Awareness Walk Montreal is an opportunity to unite people who are grieving. The welcoming environment is badly needed now, as people have been isolated by the pandemic.

The Montreal Gazette 4 minute read September 6, 2021

Darkness Into Light walks are held every September in a number of cities around the world to raise awareness about suicide. The overnight walk, which ends at sunrise, is meant to symbolize finding the light at the end of the tunnel.

N.D.G. resident Isabel Justo wasn’t aware of any such walk in her hometown, so she started her own. The inaugural Mental Health and Suicide Awareness Walk Montreal — Sept. 11, starting at 1 p.m. at the Sir George-Étienne Cartier monument at the base of Mount Royal — will be an afternoon walk instead of at night, but the goal remains the same: to shine a light on mental health issues and suicide.

Justo isn’t making any predictions in terms of attendance, but said it will be an opportunity to unite people who are grieving for friends and family. The welcoming environment is needed now more than ever, as the COVID-19 pandemic has kept people isolated. Suicide prevention awareness week in Quebec is in February and there are events around that time, but this walk will coincide with World Suicide Prevention Day, which is Sept. 10.

“It’s nice to be able to connect with people who are going through the same thing,” Justo said. “Suicide is something that’s really misunderstood.”

Justo knows first-hand the pain of losing someone close.

“I lost my husband to suicide many years ago, and then three years ago I lost my twin sister,” she said. “She was a therapist and a mental-health advocate. She helped people with depression. My mother also suffered from schizophrenia, which is why including mental health was important to me.”

Justo, a yoga studio owner, also gives back as a Family Survivors of Suicide (FSOS) group facilitator. She fields questions from bereaved individuals in the initial stage of grief, when the pain is most acute.

“What I hear a lot in the FSOS group is that ‘I could have done something,’ or a lot of unanswered questions because you didn’t see it coming,” Justo said. “I don’t know if there’s ever really an answer I can give — there’s nothing you can say, but you can offer support and listen, and that can help someone feel less alone in the process. Allowing people to talk it out, without feeling the need to give any feedback, can be very therapeutic.”

Based on her experiences and those in her groups, Justo has also noticed a lack of understanding around suicide in general, so the walk is as much about education as it is emotional support.

“You’re already victimized by the loss of a loved one, but then in a way you’re re-victimized by society. A lot of people just don’t understand, so they either stay away from you in your time of need, or they say inappropriate things, or they judge or blame, especially if it’s a parent. You can’t tell people how to feel. You can’t tell people they should feel grateful because they still have another kid. If you can believe it, people do say these kinds of things.”

Justo wanted to hold the walk last year, but restrictions on gatherings made it impossible.

Research by the Canadian Mental Health Association and University of British Columbia found “44 per cent of women and 32 per cent of men have experienced a decline in mental health since the start of the pandemic.”

The increased need for mental health services has put additional strain on an already overwhelmed system. Last November, the Legault government pledged $100 million to shorten the list, but six months later, the number of those seeking help had only grown.

We’re still in crisis. We have 20,000 people on waiting lists right now for mental health services in Montreal,” Justo said.

Anyone attending the walk will receive pamphlets from a number of mental health organizations. Justo said

Liberal MNA David Birnbaum is also expected to attend. Based purely on social media reaction in advance of the walk, she considers the endeavour a success.

In her business and in life, Justo preaches positivity. Even her car has an uplifting licence plate: URLOVED.

“There’s a lot of fear in this world, and sometimes I think we just need to be reminded that we’re not alone and we are loved,” she said. “I’ve had people honk, and people have left notes on my car. It makes me smile.”

The Mental Health and Suicide Awareness Walk Montreal is held Sept. 11 starting at 1 p.m. at the Sir George-Étienne Cartier monument on Parc Ave. For more information, visit facebook.com/groups/s.a.w.montreal.