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The Toronto Star
August 24, 1999
By Chris Nuttall-Smith and Michelle Shephard, Toronto Star Staff Reporters
The Scarborough father who threw himself in front of a subway, clutching his 3-year-old son, often went off the medication that helped treat his depression and paranoia.
For three years, Jeyabalan Balasingam had sought medical treatment for his mental illness, his psychiatrist said yesterday, but since last winter he had been inconsistent in taking his medication.
“In January of this year, he started to stop his medications and he wasn’t regular in coming to us either,” Dr. Sooria Balan said of his former patient from his office at Scarborough General Hospital.
Murder-suicide highlights immigrants’ challenges
27 August 1999
Jeyabalan Balasingam held his 3-year-old son Sajanthan close to him and jumped in front of a subway train last Sunday. Both were killed. Stories of murders and suicides have rained down on us in the last couple of years, but this one is different. Balasingam appears to have been anything but the troubled loner or victim of childhood abuse we’ve come to expect in such situations. His marriage is reported to have been good. He’d been laid off a delivery job, but rehired in June. Financial problems and work stress do not appear to have been involved in this case. His relationship with his son seems to have been loving, and his wife delivered a healthy baby girl earlier this month. Perhaps the most unusual thing about his tragic actions is that Balasingam was being treated by a psychiatrist from his own cultural and linguistic background, a rare luxury even here in Toronto. He had been diagnosed with depression and prescribed antidepressant medications, and although he went off his meds and didn’t keep appointments during the winter, he did visit his doctor in June and reported that he was taking his pills again.
With all those protective factors in place, how could this happen? No one will ever know for certain what drove Balasingam to kill himself and his young son, but several possibilities come to mind. Perhaps after resuming his medication, he was free of the inertia and inhibitions imposed by the illness, but had not yet banished depressive thoughts and feelings. In short, he may have grown well enough to act on his feelings. The birth of a child, however welcome, stresses fathers deeply. A baby necessarily demands time, attention and work, not to mention giving up sleep. For some fathers, a new baby is a rival for the emotional and physical resources of the mother.
Another child may also mean more responsibility and less freedom for the new father. Depressed fathers are particularly vulnerable. Now for the dicey part: Immigration, even to as wonderful a country as Canada, raises the risk of mental illness, suicide, and murder. However terrible things may have been in their native country, immigrants knew more or less what to expect there. Life here may be “better,” but it’s different. Moving to a new land demands acquisition of that country’s standards, values and cultural norms. For the new Canadian, this means losing habits and beliefs that were central parts of who he or she had always been, and replacing them with apparently pointless rules and regulations. Such loss of meaning in life in pursuit of fitting in is a powerful risk factor for depression and destructive acts. It’s worthy to note that men from non-North American cultures are less likely to discuss or seek support for emotional distress within their own community – if they have a community here. For some, feeling badly is shameful and means the distressed man doesn’t deserve to live – or to be survived by a first-born son. Immigration often means a downward drift in social status and another assault on self-esteem. We will never know what the change meant to Balasingam personally, or what the same process is doing to other socially downshifted immigrants (like physicians who are relegated to menial jobs here despite their qualifications.) I’d love to close this column with a silver bullet, but all I’ve got is wishes: For the Balasingam family and their friends, an uncomplicated grief and successful reinvestment in life; And for others starting a new life in this country, the support of a community aware that easing in to the new life may be a much tougher challenge than it seems from the outside. — The views expressed are those of the author, a Toronto psychiatrist. Send your questions to Dr. Irvin Wolkoff c/o Your Mind, Life Section, Toronto Star, One Yonge St., Toronto M5E 1E6. Or fax: (416) 869-4410. Sorry, personal replies cannot be given. TROUBLED: Jeyabalan Balasingam, with son Sajanthan and wife Uma was subject to many of the pressures immigrants face, Dr. Irvin Wolkoff says.