Talk about it: 1st step to end stigma and prevent suicide on Burin Peninsula

After six suicides in the last 14 months in Grand Bank, efforts are underway to solve the complex puzzle of mental health care in the rural community.

Health Minister says community solutions are the way to go and points to Labrador West as example

The province's health minister John Haggie, left, and suicide counsellor Tina Davies, right, spoke to CBC's Here & Now about the number of suicides in Grand Bank last year. (CBC)

It's going to be a community effort to heal from a recent spate of suicides on the Burin Peninsula, says health minister John Haggie.

And it will start with conversations.

"It's pieces of a puzzle that will come together," Haggie told CBC Television's Here & Now.

The town of Grand Bank, population 2,300, is still reeling from a shocking series of six suicides in the past 14 months.

Sisters Valerie Peach and Natalie Randell both lost their husbands to suicide last year. They told their stories to CBC News in an effort to increase awareness and improve treatment. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Valerie Peach and Natalie Randell, two sisters whose husbands were among those deaths, have been telling their story and calling for better mental health care and different attitudes toward suicide.

Haggie said their voices are a crucial first step toward change on the Burin Peninsula.

"The real problem that a lot of communities have and a lot of people have is they simply don't know how to start that conversation and don't know how to get around that block. And these [stories] are a start."

The sisters are also part of a newly-launched community action group looking at ways to increase awareness about mental health in the area, and to develop a plan for suicide prevention and intervention. They'll also look at how to support friends and family members who have been affected.

Services exist, but aren't being used

"The challenge there is how we engage people," Haggie said.

He said the stigma of mental illness and especially suicide, remains persistent, especially in smaller places such as Grand Bank. 

The province's health minister, John Haggie, says he's looking at how Labrador West residents responded to suicides there as a model for Grand Bank. (CBC)

People in a small town don't want to be seen going into an office or building labelled as a mental health clinic, he said.

"Because in a small community everybody points the finger and says, 'Oh he's got a problem.'" 

Years ago people who had a diagnosis of cancer wouldn't come out and talk about it because they all thought they were going to die.- John Haggie

Haggie said mental health services have been increased in Grand Bank, but people aren't using them. Stigma is holding them back. 

Efforts are underway to recruit a mental health care worker for Grand Bank to work in a drop-in or single-session capacity, something he says worked very well in Labrador West last year after a cluster of suicides there.

"Very few people do need to see a psychiatrist for mental health issues," said Haggie, who is a medical doctor himself.

In Labrador, clinics were set up in malls or in the basement of the steelworkers' union, he said, thus allowing people a bit more anonymity when they went for counselling or other services.

Tina Davies is a suicide counsellor. She says often people just need someone to care, and to listen to their story. (CBC)

Tina Davies, a suicide counsellor who facilitates Survivors of Suicide meetings, agrees that single-session counselling can do a lot of good, so long as people feel comfortable enough to actually avail of the service.

"A lot of times, sometimes that's all a person needs is somebody to listen to them, somebody to hear their story of how they go to having those suicidal thoughts, somebody who cares," said Davies.

"After you speak with them for a while … their pain has gone down. Right there, you've changed a life right there."

Sometimes that's all a person needs is somebody to listen to them, somebody to hear their story.- Tina Davies

It won't happen overnight, Haggie said, but every time someone like Valerie Peach or Natalie Randell comes forward, progress is made.

"If you go back years ago people who had a diagnosis of cancer wouldn't come out and talk about it because they all thought they were going to die but we've dealt with that and the results have improved," he said.

"And I think if you accept that premise by putting in a parallel system for mental health, you will reduce that mortality from depression."

With files from Here and Now