MP's widow pleads for suicide prevention plan

The widow of a Saskatchewan MP who took his own life is pushing for Ottawa to implement a federal suicide prevention plan.
Denise Batters appears as a witness at a commons health committee on mental illness in Ottawa on Thursday, March 8, 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Denise Batters leans forward in her chair and cranes her neck to watch the video about her late husband, Dave.

A silence falls over the room as she appears on the screen, flipping through a scrapbook of newspaper articles about his suicide. The young MP killed himself in his Regina home in June 2009 after battling anxiety and depression.

The short video ends and Denise begins her presentation to the House of Commons health committee. Some members of Parliament sitting around the table were colleagues and friends of her husband.

Others are hearing his story for the first time.

"I want to talk about Dave, particularly with people who knew him and loved him," Denise says.

"I've had many people say to me: 'I wasn't sure if I should mention Dave to you, because I thought that might be painful for you.'

"However, there is nothing that brightens my day more than hearing a news story about Dave. He was such a funny, friendly person. He deserves to be remembered often for all of those great qualities."

She has come to Ottawa on a dreary Thursday morning to push for a federal suicide prevention plan, something that seemed easier to do when she was back home in Saskatchewan.

"My speeches at these kind of things always sound better when I'm practising it in the bathroom mirror when I have no emotion and get through it without my voice quaking," she says.

"At the same time, people understand it was a difficult thing to do. You know, I started watching that video — and I've watched it quite a few times since it played — and usually I don't get emotional when I see it. But then, when I just saw that big picture of Dave up there today, I'm just thinking it's sort of surreal in a way when I come to something like this."

The committee is considering a private member's bill known as Bill C-300, the Federal Framework for Suicide Prevention Act.

Appearing with Denise are university professors and representatives from the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention and the Lesbian Gay Bi Trans Youth Line.

But it is Denise's story that captivates the committee.

She met her future husband crossing the street at a political convention. After working as a pharmaceutical representative, Dave Batters was first elected as a Conservative MP in 2004 and was re-elected in 2006. He left politics in 2008 because of anxiety and depression. He also decided to make the reason public.

"The stigma around depression and mental illness has improved. I think Dave, actually, was a trailblazer on that," Denise says.

"This was someone who was currently suffering with these things and was a current member of Parliament. He issued that press release. He could have said 'I'm retiring,' and not explained, but he thought that he owed it to his constituents to explain why, and he thought it would help people to explain what he was going through."

Her husband was 39 years old when he killed himself.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke at Dave Batters' funeral.

"Depression can strike the sturdiest of souls," Harper said in his eulogy. "It cares not how much you have achieved or how much you have to live for."

Every year, some 4,000 Canadians take their own lives, according to Statistics Canada. The issue was highlighted in Parliament last fall when interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae called for a national suicide prevention strategy, admitting he, too, has struggled with depression in the past.

The governing Conservatives acknowledged the seriousness of the issue, pointing to the creation of the Mental Health Commission, which is supposed to report back with a strategy on mental illness by 2012.

Denise says her husband lost hope before he took his life. She hopes his story can help others.

"I just wanted to share his story, because it is a tragic story, but at the same time, I just personally think that he was too good of a guy to let that be the end of the story," Denise says.

"Hopefully, what we do here at this committee, and what Dave did by being open about the fact of what he was suffering with ... hopefully all of that can help someone."