Suicides in Grand Bank spark call for rural mental health services

The town of Grand Bank is looking for answers and better services after six deaths by suicide in the past 14 months.

Why have 6 people in the Burin Peninsula town taken their own lives in the last 14 months?

Grand Bank Mayor Rex Matthews has been working with Eastern Health to get better services and more support for people with mental health issues in his community. (CBC)

A spate of suicides on the Burin Peninsula has underscored a desperate need for more mental health services and understanding in rural Newfoundland.

Six people have taken their lives in the town of Grand Bank in the past 14 months.

The situation has upended the entire community of just over 2,300 people.

"You're always on edge," Grand Bank Mayor Rex Matthews told the St. John's Morning Show. "When your phone rings or your text comes in you say, 'oh boy, what's this?'"

Grand Bank is located on the Burin Peninsula and has a population of about 2,300 people. (CBC)

Matthews said the people who took their lives have been in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and well-known in the community for their careers and volunteer work.

"Those people, they had good families, good homes, good careers, big volunteers within the community," he said. "Life appeared to be good.

"No one understands that dark place where their mind seemed to go."

Matthews said the issue has underscored the particular challenges faced by smaller communities when it comes to dealing with mental health.

Everyone knows each other

He said the shame and stigma associated with mental health problems plays out differently in a small community.

In larger centres like Mount Pearl or St. John's, most people can go to a doctor and have a bit of privacy, he said.

How do you explain it? That's what we're going to try to find out: what went wrong here?- Rex Matthews

That's not the case in Grand Bank.

"You're sitting in a waiting room, everybody kinda knows you and they probably know what you're there for," he said.

"We have to get past that stage where mental health is treated differently than any other illness."

Closeness hard on families

The closeness of the community has, in some ways, made things more difficult for the families of the people who died.

"People are always asking why. They try to rationalize — like how can someone that seems to have everything going decide to take their life?" he said. "Why would anybody do it? The question just keeps coming and coming."

The questions make things stressful for the families, and reinforces the stigma associated with suicide.

"Someone who commits suicide, we should never pass judgment on them," said Matthews. "They're not cowards; that notion has to be put to rest, too. They're not. Those people were good, hard-working members of our community, all of them."

Grand Bank is traditionally a fishing community. (Wikimedia Commons)

The town has been working with Eastern Health over the past year to assess and address the mental health needs of the community and to try and answer some of the questions, and a focus group is planned for next week.

"How do you explain it? That's what we're going to try to find out: what went wrong here?"

Matthews says they're working on learning to identify and act on warning signs and making sure people with mental illnesses know how to navigate the system.

He said he knows a community like Grand Bank could never have the resources of an urban centre such as St. John's, but he thinks there's room for improvement.

"We expect that when someone has a sickness they know exactly how to proceed … And that hasn't been the case," he said.

With files from the St. John's Morning Show