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Catalyst

On the heels of World Suicide Prevention Day (Sept. 10) and the launch of the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s (MHCC’s) national suicide prevention project, Roots of Hope, the topic has been top of mind. So when I saw respected Globe and Mail health reporter André Picard’s tweet celebrating Anna Mehler Paperny’s new book, Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me, I was quick to order it.

When it arrived, I consumed it in one long inhalation. On the eventual exhale I knew she’d written something with the potential to change the steadfast and stigmatizing attitudes about suicide that corrode help seeking.

Paperny is a journalist. She also lives with treatment resistant depression. Her book could be summed up in three words: know thine enemy.

Using her considerable reporting skills and her unquenchable thirst for knowledge, Paperny leaves no stone unturned in her quest to understand the history of her affliction, the available treatment options, and new research shimmering like a mirage on the horizon.

While her reporting is as impeccable as her sources are unimpeachable, it is the frisson of urgency — a subtext wrought by the author’s own desperate desire for recovery — that makes this book so much more than a state of the nation on mental health care.

Each painfully personal revelation — of shame, hurt, self-loathing — pulls back the curtain inch by inch on the symptoms that can culminate in suicidal ideation. The spiral Paperny describes, of debilitating lack of energy, utter despondency, and swirling thoughts of self-obliteration, easily translate into missed deadlines and failed social engagements. Isolation begets guilt, as guilt begets negative self-talk which, in turn, is reinforced by behaviours easily criticized as selfish or self-indulgent.

And thus, the desperate cycle continues unabated.

While Paperny’s memoir is deeply affecting, it’s also a richly narrated and darkly funny. The writing itself is buoyant, gentling the reader through the complexity of brain science with an ease of reading that belies the subject’s density. She gives the lay reader the gift of understanding by translating challenging concepts into plain language — a talent that is both rare and undervalued.

Paperny’s accomplishments, her writing acumen, award-winning reporting and innovative approach, give pause to any reader who might dismiss the validity of her illness. She isn’t lazy, weak, or lacking in gumption . . . judgments endured by so many who live with mental illness. She has a loving family, and no trauma to speak of, yet cannot shake the suffocating desire to die.

Paperny is a person of wit and intellect. A loving daughter and sibling. She is “the one” in the one in five people who experience a mental illness in any given year. But what’s so much more important is that, in reading her story, she lays bare the stark reality that her illness is one that could strike any one of us. At any time.

The book is a revelation — finely wrought by her powerful writing and deeply relatable humanity — that should ignite a sense of urgency in all of us.

I encourage you to find a copy and learn more about Anna Mehler Paperny at Penguin Random House Canada.

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