Alberta's suicide rate to be examined in mental health review

Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman says a mental health review in the province will look at a 30 per cent increase in suicides that some say may be connected to oil and gas layoffs.

Alberta government promises to review suicides in wake of 30% increase from last year

Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman says the jump in suicides and the province's fentanyl crisis will be examined in the upcoming mental health review. (CBC)

Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman says an upcoming mental health review in the province will include a look at the spike in suicides that some say may be connected to oil and gas layoffs.

There were 252 suicides in Alberta from January to June 2014. During the same period this year there were 327 — a 30 per cent increase. The province's unemployment rate rose from 4.7 per cent to 5.7 per cent during the first six months of 2015.

Hoffman said the numbers are very concerning.

"I hope that the end result is that more people are supported, less people are taking their own life, less people are becoming addicted to substances that often have very tragic outcomes at the end of the day, and that we have more supports and less needs in the long run," Hoffman told reporters Monday. 

"But of course the needs are continuing to grow today, and that's one of the reasons why we need to move on having this review."

Hoffman said mental health efforts received a $10-million boost in the provincial budget unveiled in October.

"We're not going to wait until the next budget cycle to get more resources into the hands of community members," she said.

Reducing stigma important

Craig Johnson, who volunteered in the area of suicide prevention for 18 years, says rising numbers place a priority on limiting the stigma around suicide to help encourage more people to come forward for help.

"[We're] trying to get the word out about how we can help each other through times like these," he said.

Craig Johnson volunteered for 18 years in the area of suicide prevention. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Mara Grunau, who heads the Centre for Suicide Prevention in Calgary, said the numbers in Alberta are high to begin with.

"More Albertans die by suicide every year than they do in fatal car collisions," she told CBC's Calgary Eyeopener on Monday. 

She said one of the main goals should be to talk about suicide to reduce the stigma.

"We want to have open, constructive conversations," said Grunau. 

Grunau said the committee behind the mental health review should table a report in early 2016. 

Hoffman said Alberta's fentanyl crisis will also be examined in the report, and that she is thrilled the committee expects to meet her deadline of the end of the year.

Minister to pursue more funding

Dr. David Swann, the leader of Alberta's Liberal Party and the member of the legislature for Calgary-Mountainview, is on the committee. He said there is a lot of work underway already, but the review would like to see where the province can fill in the gaps.

"We know there is an increased incidence of depression and anxiety in young people. First Nations have up to seven times as high a rate of suicide and they have much fewer resources," said Swann. "So we do need to beef up the resources." 

Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann says more resources are needed in mental health to help prevent suicides. (Trisha Estabrooks/CBC)

He said the system has been "fragmented and under-resourced" for a number of years.

The health minister said the $10-million boost will help fix that, and that more funds could arrive next year. 

"We will be bringing forward a spring budget, and I will be confident to make a case for why we need to allocate towards mental health," Hoffman said. 

She said a look at mental health was among the NDP's campaign promises in the last provincial election.

"I don't think there's any MLA in this house who didn't hear about mental health when they were out door knocking," said Hoffman. 

"I think the good news is that people are more comfortable talking about it. The tragic news is that more and more people are being directly impacted — either themselves personally or somebody that they love."

How to help

Cindy Negrello, director of client services at the Canadian Mental Health Association in Calgary, said the spike in suicides could be related to the recession, but most likely has other causes.

"It could be a loss of job, it could be a loss of a pet, it could be a loss of a relationship, it could be loss of friendship — you know, all those different losses — and if they add up, the person's vulnerability would be that much increased," she said.

Mara Grunau, who heads the Centre for Suicide Prevention, says the increase in Alberta's suicide rate is staggering. (CBC)

Negrello said more education is needed to break down the silence around suicide. She would like to see more public discussion.

"We build strength that way," she said. "And then people know, who are feeling isolated and vulnerable, they see more options out there."

Grunau from the Centre for Suicide Prevention agrees. She said sudden changes are a warning sign for someone with depression — if they are suddenly happy, close down their active social media accounts or give away possessions.

"Have the courage to ask them directly: 'Are you thinking of suicide?'" she said. "The worst thing that can happen is they laugh and say no, which is embarrassing, but not a big deal."

She said they often see suicides peak in April — which is around the time experts expect the severance packages from laid-off oilpatch workers to run out

Anyone looking for help can contact the Calgary Distress Centre.


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