Why I Wrote The Suicide Magnet - Dundurn
Jan 11, 2024

Why I Wrote The Suicide Magnet

I was driven to write The Suicide Magnet for two compelling reasons.

First and foremost was to honour the incredible campaign that two ordinary citizens—retired salesman Al Birney and journalism student Michael McCamus—waged over some five years to convince Toronto city hall to erect a safety barrier on the Bloor Viaduct, a massive bridge linking downtown with the city’s east end.

Built in 1918, the viaduct is a magnificent architectural and engineering feat; it was also the location of some 400 suicides since it opened, second only to the Golden Gate Bridge in North America.

Their tireless efforts, despite numerous setbacks imposed by politicians and bureaucrats, won out in the end. As a result, a location considered a “romantic” place from which a despondent person jumped to their death, was no longer accessible. Their research ultimately convinced the city that when one “magnet” is removed, not everyone will seek another location.

Their lobbying literally saved lives. Their story also demonstrated that you can fight city hall.

The other reason is my belief that society has to talk openly about suicide. For far too long, there has been a prevailing belief that suicide should only be reported, for example, if the person who died was newsworthy. The concern is that mentioning suicide leads to copycats.

I know there can be a spike in suicides after a famous person’s death is reported, but I’m not certain those deaths would not have occurred, nonetheless.

I am convinced, however, that society has benefitted greatly from campaigns educating the public about drinking and driving, domestic violence, smoking in public, and other social issues. The recent initiatives to remove the stigma around openly discussing mental health problems have had a positive effect on how these common and understandable challenges are perceived.

It’s time to do the same about suicide. About 4,500 people in Canada take their lives each year. That’s a number that should not be accepted quietly. And all indications are that young people are increasingly vulnerable to suicide.

If my book in any way helps to promote a more public exploration of what, in some ways, is one of our last taboos, I believe it will have served an important purpose.

Al Birney and Michael McCamus were not afraid to speak out about suicide prevention. The rest of us need to do the same.

Paul McLaughlin is a highly experienced and award-winning freelance writer, broadcaster and teacher. The author of 2022’s Asking the Best Questions, he has written numerous books, articles and playscripts. He lives in Toronto, where he teaches professional writing at York University. Learn more here.