Lynn Keane lost her 23-year-old son to suicide in 2009. After two years of trying to understand why and reaching out to friends for support, she was able to start writing about the tragic experience. She soon became a vocal advocate for a national suicide strategy in Canada, writing articles and appearing on television news, radio shows, and international TED talks.
Canada remains one of the few industrialized countries without a national suicide prevention strategy, and Keane and other advocates say the federal government is long overdue in implementing a strategy that can prevent suicide and save lives.
“You just have to look at the news at any given week and there are spates of suicides in this country, particularly in Indigenous communities, throughout the year,” Keane said in an interview.
She notes suicide is the eleventh leading cause of death in Canada, with around 4,000 deaths per year. But among those aged 10-24 it is the second leading cause of death, and therefore it is incumbent upon the public to demand a national strategy from the federal government, she said.
Advocates like Keane point to Indigenous communities such as in northern Ontario where four young people aged between 12 and 16 took their lives last month. Within the region, the Nishnawbe Aski Nation has reported at least 22 suicides since Jan. 1 among a population of 45,000.
It’s become a disturbing trend in far too many First Nation communities, said Keane, where suicide claims about 5 to 6 times more youth than in the non-Aboriginal population. Among the Inuit population, in Nunavut, people take their own lives at 13.5 times the rate of the Canadian average.
“With everything we know to date, it just begs the question why the federal government and [Health] Minister Jane Philpott’s office are not focused on a national suicide prevention strategy,” she said.
Keane points to strategies that have been proven to work, such as those found in Quebec and Europe where mental health care has been bolstered with access treatment centres in all regions and more focus from general practitioners and family doctors to detect suicidal behaviours, including intervention and following up with those most vulnerable.
According to research by the medical journal The Lancet, Quebec has reduced suicide rates by a third since launching its prevention strategy in 1999, going down by 2.2 percent each year.
“The fact that the rate of suicides has decreased, some areas by 50 percent, you know something is working,” said Keane. “That alone should be getting Ottawa’s attention.”
The Epoch Times contacted the Ministry of Health by email and was given information on a national suicide prevention framework, but Philpott’s office didn’t reply to questions about a specific strategy like that in Quebec and Europe.
‘Address the issue head-on’
For Julie Campbell, director of the Ottawa-based Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention (CASP), it’s also been a frustrating effort to get Ottawa on board with a national strategy and modernize its approach.
“I think we need to really address the issue more directly, head-on, and we will see results,” she said.
Campbell, who was busy working with CASP on new material to present for the International Suicide Prevention Day 2017 on Sept. 10, said that within the U.K., Scotland reduced its suicide rate by 18 percent since 2002 after introducing a national prevention strategy.
However, she said she is relieved Canada will finally have a national toll-free hotline for those battling depression and suicidal thoughts. It will be launched in November.
Currently, she said, there are numerous hotline numbers in each province, but the new prevention hotline will simplify things by having only one number that connects the caller with the appropriate local mental health service automatically. Part of Quebec’s strategy was to consolidate to one phone number for easier access for those at risk.
Both Keane and Campbell were critical of Philpott for making comments last year after a spate of Aboriginal suicides that Canada doesn’t need a national strategy because the provinces have adequate strategies of their own.
‘It’s not a national strategy we need’
But not all experts say a national strategy is paramount in preventing suicide. Dr. Stan Kutcher, a mental health and youth suicide expert based at Dalhousie University, recommends a more pragmatic approach under each province’s own health authorities to help those most vulnerable.
“It’s not a national strategy we need, but for provincial health authorities to ensure that their mental health-care providers and their primary health-care providers have the skills and competencies necessary to put into place those kinds of interventions we know actually work,” he said.
However, Kutcher praised the success of efforts in Quebec such as improving the education of health-care and emergency care providers. Supporting and following up with those who have reported suicide attempts as well as supporting those with mental illness should also be implemented, he said, noting that this approach doesn’t cost a lot and can be put in place directly by each province.
“We have this strange combination of interventions we could put into place that we know are effective but we are not putting them into place,” he said.
“And we have interventions that there is little or no evidence that they work but they are beautifully marketed and aimed at the community level, and we don’t have any evidence that they do what they’re supposed to do.”
Jared Gnam is a freelance reporter based in Vancouver. He broke into the world of journalism covering the Stanley Cup Riot in 2011.