SUICIDE PREVENTION FORUM: HOLIDAY STRATEGIES NEEDED

This past week, I held a forum on suicide prevention with front line mental health and community development workers in Kirkland Lake. It was part of the Canadian Mental Health Commission’s 308 Conversations campaign on suicide awareness. As we discussed strategies for improving suicide prevention, the participants kept coming back to the importance of reaching out to people at Christmas time. For most people, holidays can be one of the warmest times of the year while we gather with family and community. But for those who are struggling with loneliness, isolation or depression, the holidays can be the most difficult of days.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada states that nearly 3,900 people die every year as a result of suicide and many more attempt to end their lives. Suicide is one of the top ten causes of death in Canada and among youth aged 15 – 24 it is the second leading cause of death next to accidents. In remote rural areas like in the north, we have seen and felt too many of these tragic stories.

That is why I recently organized a meeting with mental health experts, stakeholders and members of our community. Our conversations were about finding out what’s working in the area of suicide prevention, identifying the gaps in service delivery and looking for solutions.

At an institutional level, we need to better coordinate public mental health organizations and community outreach. Services are often over-stretched and the delivery of programs can be fragmented.

But all of the participants spoke of the need to involve the public. Community is the front line of defense and the front line solution.

The problem is that all across North American society, people are becoming more isolated. When I was a kid in the north, there were big families that connected through numerous webs of social interaction such as churches, community organizations, youth clubs and sports leagues. Tightly-knit community structures were there to help when people began to fall through the cracks. But these links have become increasingly frayed. More and more we look to medical and institutional professionals to deal with those who are isolated or suffering mental stress.

These agencies do incredible work but they can’t fill the gap. It still comes down to neighbours, friends and people who look out for each other. Suicide and mental health involve complex overlapping issues. We know the answers are neither simple nor easy. But, we also know that little gestures can have a huge impact on someone who is feeling isolated.

If you have a neighbor without family in the area, check in on them. If you know someone who seems isolated or depressed, how about inviting them over for tea or going to a movie? These little efforts can be a lifeline to someone suffering loneliness. The emotional costs of suicide and mental health stress on our communities are immeasurable. The impacts on families and communities are deeply traumatic.  But a simple phone call or gift to a lonely neighbor can also have an immeasurable impact for the good.  

The conversation about suicide prevention needs to continue. We have a long way to go in breaking down the stigmas of mental illness and depression. But the holidays are a time when each of us can find ways of playing our part. And so, while you gather with your family in our community during this holiday season, how about taking the time to look around and see if there is someone else you can include in this web of community and warmth?

I hope everyone enjoys the joy and community of the season.