Advocates raise alarm about suicide and the economy
17 more Albertans die by suicide with each 1% jump in unemployment, study shows
New research out of the University of Calgary highlights the connection between Alberta's economic slump and the province's high suicide rates — and it's more dramatic than mental health advocates anticipated.
The analysis looked at suicide statistics and unemployment data between 2000 and 2017. During that time, Alberta's suicide rate was higher than the national average.
It also reveals that for every one per cent increase in unemployment, there's a 2.8 per cent increase in the province's suicide rate.
That means 15-17 more Albertans are dying every year.
"We need to be aware that a lot of people in our society are vulnerable, especially when the economy turns south," said Ron Kneebone, author of the report and scientific director of health and social policy research at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy.
The report notes the factors leading to suicide are complex and can include psychological, cultural and social forces.
"An economic downturn my contribute to an increase in suicides by adding to financial stress through loss of income, and wealth, threatened mortgage foreclosures, and perhaps by contributing to increased social isolation," the report states.
In 2017, 637 Albertans died by suicide.
Statistics are 'shocking'
Mental health advocates have been watching the relationship between the economy and mental health closely as Alberta struggles to recover from a recession.
"People often suffer alone and die alone, and it's our job to advocate for them," said Mara Grunau, executive director of the Centre for Suicide Prevention.
The relationship between suicide and unemployment rates has been documented before, according to Grunau. But previous studies have shown a much less dramatic increase in suicide rates with upswings in unemployment — the corresponding increases were thought be closer to a ratio of 1 to 1.
"It is shocking, but when we unpack it, I'm not sure that it's surprising," said Grunau.
Men are far more likely to die by suicide than women — most of them when they're middle-aged — and Grunau says Alberta is unique in that respect.
"Who is affected by this economic downturn? Men in their working years. And the other thing we have in Alberta is we're known for our hyper masculine, if you will, industries," she said.
Calls for more supports
The numbers highlight the continued need for government supports for mental health programs and services during tough economic times, according to the report's author.
"I think it would be a bad time to be cutting back funding for those agencies for sure because … probably the demand for those services is at a very high peak right now because the economy's still in dire straits," Kneebone said.
At the Centre for Suicide Prevention, where staff are preparing for their annual Run for Life on Sunday, Grunau worries about what might be to come as the provincial government considers widespread spending cuts.
"This government [recently] earmarked $140 million for addictions and mental health. And we know that $40 million was right away directed to the opioid response. But that leaves $100 million on the table. And we urge the Government of Alberta to remember that, until recently, more people in this province died by suicide every year than they did by fentanyl."
If you or someone you know is suffering from mental health issues or suicidal thoughts, the Crisis Services Canada website is a good resource. You can also call them toll-free at 1-833-456-4566 or text 45645.