N.L. suicide rates have tripled since 1980s, among highest in Canada, says researcher
Warning: This story contains a conversation about suicide
Canada has seen an overall drop of 24 per cent in suicide rates since the 1980s, but in that same timeframe the number of reported deaths by suicide in Newfoundland and Labrador has more than tripled.
Data in a paper co-authored by Nathaniel Pollock, a research associate with the Labrador Institute, shows rates went from less than five people per 100,000 in the early 1980s to more than 15 people per 100,000 in 2018.
"Historically, and as far back as we have data, the suicide rate in Newfoundland and Labrador was typically one of the lower rates in Canada compared to other provinces and territories," Pollock told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.
"Now, compared to other provinces, we rank as one of the highest."
Pollock, who has a PhD in community health from Memorial University, said the reason for the rate increase is a tricky question to answer.
He said the paper in which he co-authored didn't look specifically into the cause. Rather, the idea was to get a sense of what has happened over time.
He said what he and other researchers found was a steady increase across different demographic groups, sexes and age groups each year.
"We didn't specifically look at the factors that may have contributed to that, but is certainly something that we should be doing next," he said.
Males account for about 80 per cent of all deaths by suicide in N.L., which is similar to other provinces in Canada, while the suicide rate among young women has also increased similarly to what is being seen across the country, according to Pollock.
He said the suicide crisis among youth is often at the forefront of discussion, but the broad picture shows rates are typically higher in older age groups.
Decrease poverty, increase social security
While economic downturn and financial instability can lead to a rise in suicide rates, Pollock said a question on his mind during his research included how turbulent times — such as the cod moratorium introduced in 1992 — could change the pattern of suicide mortality.
"What we found was that the rate was pretty steady through the beginning and the early '80s, through the '90s and 2000s. It was a steady increase. Although rates continued to rise after the moratorium there was no sort of noticeable change that we could tell," he said.
"The way we interpreted that was that the cod moratorium may in some way have contributed to that, but we weren't able to detect that particularly in our data. The rate was pretty constant through that period."
Pollock said countries and provinces that provide some measure of social protection after large economic downturns such as recessions, including programs that help offset financial loss, don't tend to see large spikes in deaths by suicide.
"One of the things, to me, that this sort of underscores, is the need to look not just at some of the individual or clinical things we can do related to suicide prevention," said Pollock.
"We need to sort of understand and think about the impact of social and economic policy, and there are a lot of dimensions that aren't just behavioural or psychological factors that can impact suicide but there are also some ones from social context that can really impact the true policy we may need to consider when we're trying to prevent suicide."
Those areas to consider are ways to decrease poverty and provide economic and social security, Pollock noted, which are good for mental health.
"We know that there's a social gradient for a lot of different health outcomes, suicide included, and people who experience poverty and people who are lower income tend to have poorer outcomes," he said.
"Things that we can do as a collective through government policy and through programming is to decrease poverty and increase people's sense of security, and well-being and connection to community. These are the kinds of interventions I think on a big scale can certainly have an impact on a population's mental health."
Where to get help:
Newfoundland and Labrador Mental Health Crisis Line: 737-4668 or 1-888-737-4668
Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (phone) | 45645 (Text, 4 p.m. to midnight ET only) | crisisservicescanada.ca
In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (phone), live chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca
Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre
With files from The St. John's Morning Show