Kitchener-Waterloo

Why a suicide prevention advocate says high self harm numbers in Waterloo region aren't cause for alarm

A report presented at the region's community services committee this week said cases of self harm have increased dramatically in the past five years. But that may mean people are seeking out the help they need, which is a good thing, one suicide prevention advocate says.

'Youth are doing exactly what we’ve been asking them to do, which is reach out for help'

A report that says more people are going to the hospital after they've self-harmed is not bad news, says Tana Nash, executive director Waterloo Region Suicide Prevention Council. It potentially means more people are seeking help. (Natalie Kalata/CBC News)

The number of emergency room visits by people who have intentionally self-harmed has risen dramatically in Waterloo region in the past five years, a new report says.

There has been a 52 per cent increase between 2011 and 2015, the report presented to the region's community services committee said, and numbers reflect a high rate of youth and young women.

But a suicide prevention advocate says those numbers are not bad news.

"Obviously any suicide death or suicide attempt is one too many and we want to reach out. I don't know, though, if the report is not good news or if the youth are doing exactly what we've been asking them to do, which is reach out for help if you're struggling," Tana Nash, executive director Waterloo Region Suicide Prevention Council, told The Morning Edition host Craig Norris.

She noted the number of people who have died by suicide has not fluctuated much, with an annual average of 57 deaths in the past five years in Waterloo region. Suicide is the 16th leading cause of death in the region.

"I'm also looking at the suicide deaths and saying, OK, a lot of people are reaching out, but in terms of the number of deaths, while every one death is one too many, we're still holding there," Nash said.

Active suicide prevention community

Nash said much work has gone into ensuring support systems are in place to help those with suicidal or self-harming thoughts.

"We've got a really active community. Our school boards are working really hard, our local organizations such as Lutherwood, our children's mental health lead facility, and many other organizations, are really working with youth around, if you are struggling, what do you do and where do you go for help," she said, adding they've also been educating people about what to do if they have a friend or family member who is struggling.

The data shows the number of visits to the hospital, Nash said, but does not break down the numbers to show whether one person might be going more than once.
In June, the southwestern Ontario city of Woodstock was rocked after five students died by suicide. Rallies were held to support the youth in the community. (Natalie Kalata/CBC News)

'It is still a cry for help'

Self-harming is still cause for concern, Nash said, because it is still a cry for help.

"Often self-harm is more of a way of expressing themselves or for an individual to feel something. So maybe they're feeling numb and feeling emotionless, and actually self-harm would be ... a way of allowing them to share that. It is not, usually, the intent to die," she said.

"So it's completely different than a suicide attempt. It is still a cry for help and it means something is going on emotionally. It's a coping skill, and so we want replace those with healthier coping skills."

Self-harming means youth are reaching out – they are going to the hospital for help.

"We're doing a greater job at raising awareness, breaking down barriers and bringing stigma down. But the system then has a responsibility to make sure that services match that level, which currently … isn't taking place right now," Nash said.

Just one-third of those who go to hospital are admitted.

"What about the two-thirds," Nash asked. "What are we doing for those individuals?"

Helping youth, parents

Nash was at Queen's Park Thursday to present on a recent pilot project called Skills for Safer Living, a group for people with suicidal thoughts, that was dedicated to helping teens and parents.

"We know that we have some gaps for parent groups," she said. "Parents are reaching out to us and saying, 'My child is struggling. I need a parent group to know what am I doing, how can I help?' So we're continuing to identify gaps and look at what we can do."

Listen to our interview with Tana Nash, executive director of the Waterloo Region Suicide Prevention Council: 

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