Mental health experts in Thunder Bay Ont. say the community 'needs more' when it comes to suicide prevention
Warning: This story contains discussion of suicide and self harm
Heartbreaking, a cry for help, frightening, and all too familiar.
That's how suicide prevention advocates, and mental health professionals in Thunder Bay Ont., describe a recent public safety alert issued by the Thunder Bay Police Service. The alert, issued on July 31, indicates a rise in suicides and attempted suicides through the month of July in Thunder Bay.
"It's a really concerning situation for all of us in this community," said Jennifer Hyslop, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Thunder Bay Branch.
Hyslop said a severe mental health crisis, like a rise in suicides, is something that the CMHA began bracing for when the COVID-19 pandemic began. In April, CMHA and Pollara conducted a survey in which 25 per cent of respondents indicated "serious concerns" about their own mental health and substance use, according to Hyslop.
"We've been quite aware of the potential of the echo and what's coming next. So we've been working hard at this branch in particular, really really thinking about how we pivot to meet these needs," Hyslop explained.
Hyslop said amid the pandemic, CMHA has seen an increase in calls to their crisis response line, with an average of two calls per day related to suicide.
Risks heightened by COVID-19
While COVID-19 heightened many mental health risks within the community, Hyslop said there's still a number of unique factors within the community that need to be considered when looking at current risks for suicidality.
"The high level of drugs in the community, and drug use, not enough programs for people to go and safely use alcohol and not have to drink on the street...I mean there's so much more," said Hyslop. "We've got some great services, but I think that as a community we need more."
For Scott Chishom, a suicide prevention advocate and founder of the Collateral Damage Project, the COVID-19 crisis has served as reminder of the need for open dialogue around suicide when things are "seemingly okay."
"We tend to talk about suicide after people die or when people are at great risk, and I really did set out to begin to change that dialogue. I think we need a dialogue when things seem okay so that we can actually truly prevent suicide," said Chisholm.
Chisholm lost his father to suicide in 1982 when he was 17 years old. In 2009, he launched the Collateral Damage Project with the goal of creating open dialogue around suicide, and to provide support to loved ones left behind by suicide.
Through all the years since losing his father and becoming a suicide prevention advocate, the latest public safety alert issued by police felt "heartbreaking" and "all too familiar" for Chisholm.
For Chisholm, the risks of suicidality in the community have always "been there." But now through the pandemic, those risks have changed or have become heightened, as Hyslop said.
"The components that we look at, what put people at risk over a longer period of time, one of those is connected relationships," explained Chisholm. "Intimate relationships, or friends and family, and coworkers ... a lot of those relationships were put into crisis essentially because they were disconnected."
Chisholm added financial stress, unpredictability, and limited access to healthcare services are all components that can contribute to mental health issues, and are things that became more prevalent during the pandemic.
"All these things as human beings we really need, and strive for. And when we lose those it becomes a very very difficult situation," he said.
Difficult conversations can save lives
When it comes to suicide prevention, Chisholm said organization models, like the Canadian Cancer Society or the Cancer Fund, could be beneficial if adapted to fit into suicide prevention.
Chisholm said what the Thunder Bay community could use is a "suicide prevention council," similar to the Waterloo Suicide Prevention Council (WSPC), which was created in 1997. The WSPC has had success in implementing community-based suicide prevention education and training, and developed a Waterloo Region Suicide Prevention Strategy.
"Creating an organization essentially under a suicide prevention council, similar to what Waterloo has, it's an amazing example of what we can do in the community," he explained. "Over time it really does create this preventive body that brings community organizations and individuals together."
Hyslop echoed the "critical" need for community-based suicide prevention strategies, adding that supporting existing initiatives and having "difficult" conversations with family and friends who may be suffering are all opportunities for "improved outcomes."
"We all have some responsibility in this community too, to be watching out for our friends, our families, people who are really vulnerable," she said. "Having those difficult conversations and asking really difficult questions like 'are you thinking about killing yourself?' Because difficult questions like that will help save people's lives."
If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, there is help out there:
- City of Thunder Bay: 807-346-8282
- District of Thunder Bay: 1-888-269-3100
- Kenora Rainy River District: 1-866-888-8988
For suicide prevention education: