National suicide prevention plan needed, MDs hear

A national suicide prevention strategy is needed in Canada, a journal article urges.

A national suicide prevention strategy is needed in Canada, a journal article urges.

About 10 people die by suicide every day in this country. Despite national guidelines calling for a national strategy to prevent these, Canada doesn’t have one. 

Suicide prevention strategies include reducing access to suicide methods such as installing barriers like this one on Toronto's Bloor Viaduct. (Lori Slater)

In contrast, many countries in Europe as well as the United States, New Zealand and Sri Lanka have adopted national suicide prevention strategies. In Finland, the rate of suicide decreased nine per cent from before 1985 when the program was adopted.

"Given the number of Canadians who die by suicide each year, the burden in terms of the suffering and pain of those left to cope with the loss of a loved one and the growing evidence of effective strategies for prevention, physicians have a responsibility to encourage governments to move toward policies and programs that will prevent suicides," Dr. Paul Links, a psychiatrist at the University of Toronto concluded in an analysis published in Monday’s issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

"In Canada, this includes encouraging the federal government to form a national strategy for suicide prevention similar to those in place in so many other developed nations."

Ironically, the strategies adopted by other countries were based on expert guidelines that were formulated in Calgary and Banff and adopted by the United Nations in 1996, Links noted.

Common themes in the strategies include:

  • Detection and treatment of depression and other mental disorders.
  • Enhanced access to mental health services.
  • Reduced access to lethal methods of suicide such as reducing access to firearms and installing barriers at bridges.
  • Public education.
  • Responsible media reporting.
  • Addressing alcohol and drug abuse.
  • Crisis intervention and followup.

Doctors can play an important role in preventing suicide, Links said.

Post-discharge care

He suggested that doctors need to be aware of risk factors, such as when a patient has been recently discharged from a psychiatric institution to provide appropriate support or referrals. A recent Canadian study of high-risk patients with a lifetime history of suicidal behaviour confirmed that the time after discharge is a high-risk period.

Physicians could also reduce the risk of suicide by linking elderly patients with depression with mental health specialists, Links added.

Provinces including British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have started strategies for suicide prevention and Nunavut and Ontario are working on them, according to the analysis.

Links called for the federal government to help organize and coordinate strategies, such as setting targets on reducing suicide rates.

Earlier this month, the Liberals launched a petition and tabled a motion in Parliament calling for a national strategy to prevent suicide and to help families left behind.

At the time, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said the government has made "significant investments" in mental health research and health promotion.

Last year, NDP MP Megan Leslie introduced a bill calling for a national strategy in consultation with provincial, territorial and First Nations governments.