A 30 per cent rise in suicide in Alberta in the first six months of 2015 has to be addressed now, says a mental health expert.
“If we do nothing, the worst is yet to come,” said Mara Grunau, executive director of the Centre for Suicide Prevention in Calgary.
New statistics from Alberta’s medical examiner’s office show 327 suicides from January to June 2015 compared to 252 in the first six months of 2014. Last year suicides totalled 547.
“Our rate in Alberta is high. More Albertans die by suicide then they do in fatal car collisions every year so we’re starting at a nasty spot, and now we’ve gone up,” Grunau said on Tuesday.
“All of a sudden we’re seeing this climb. That to me is alarming.”
She said blaming the increase strictly on job loss in Alberta’s oil-focused economy is not supported by research.
“For every one per cent rise in unemployment, we get a .79 per cent uptake in suicide, however it’s usually a two-year delay until we get to that point. I’m not saying there aren’t people who have lost their jobs and killed themselves. I know there have been, on an individual level. But on a population level, it seems too quick to be that.”
She said two years ago, Southern Alberta experienced massive flooding and Fort McMurray also suffered a huge flood deemed a natural disaster which could help explain the increase, but the data is not broken down.
Grunau hoped the province can turn things around with the report from Mental Health Review.
“It will be presented in January. I’m optimistic suicide prevention will be identified as a priority area. If we do something, we can curb what will happen two years from now with this latest catastrophe.”
Centre for Suicide Prevention recommended to the review that there be dedicated leadership for suicide prevention reporting to the premier, open and easy access to mental health care, research, public education, and more.
Grunau said suicide prevention programs like Men at Risk help by reaching out to men who work in male-dominated industries, like the oil field and ranching, where men work isolated, high-risk jobs and are socialized not to seek help.
But prevention requires a multi-pronged approach and it’s everyone’s responsibility, she said.
“People who consider suicide don’t want to die. They want the pain of living to end. They don’t see a way out. We need to offer them a way out. If you see someone at risk, or suspect someone is at risk, be bold and ask them,” Grunau said.
Trish McAllister, executive director of Red Deer’s Canadian Mental Health Association office, said the number of people looking for help has increased in the last three to four months.
“Our calls are certainly way up. I wouldn’t have a percentage for you. But we certainly have seen our phone calls and walk-ins increase pretty significantly,” McAllister said.
CMHA assists people living with mental illness and homelessness, but can also refer people to other community services.
“We can’t fix job loses or fix the economy for people. But what we can is help them find resources to get through those tough times and know there is support in their community and in their family so they don’t feel so isolated. Often that’s the main issue. Those stresses build up and build up. People begin to feel more isolated and feel there is no other option. They need to know there are other options.”
McAllister said it’s never one issue, like job loss, that pushes people to suicide.
“It can certainly perhaps be a tipping point for some individuals. But it’s rarely one individual factor.”
She said Central Alberta typically has a higher suicide rate.
“Part of that is due to our rural composition. Some of that is isolation and lack of resources. Some of that is a rural mentality that we have to sort of buck up,” McAllister said.
Lindsay Douglas, communications co-ordinator of the Distress Centre in Calgary, was also reluctant to directly relate the increase in suicides in Alberta to oil-patch layoffs.
“It’s too early to tell and we just don’t have enough information,” Douglas said.
“Suicide is very complex issue. The stats are very basic. They don’t go into demographics, the age of people dying by suicide, or where they are in Alberta. So it’s hard for us to draw conclusions with the information we have.”
The Distress Centre operates the Suicide Prevention Hotline and while calls to the line have increased, the reason is not clear.
“Calls to our suicide prevention line are up, but we receive so few calls to that number that it could be a number of factors that are bringing the calls up. It could be just a few people calling frequently,” said Douglas about rural hotline for Southern Alberta, including Red Deer.
She said the line receives only about 1,500 calls a year on average.
“Even though we don’t receive a lot of calls, we think it’s really important to have that number, for people outside of Calgary or Edmonton to have a place to call when they’re struggling.”
Not all calls to the hotline deal with suicide, but many do because it’s easily recognizable, she said.
To contact the Suicide Prevention Hotline call 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433).
Another toll-free resource is Alberta Mental Health Help Line at 1-877-303-2642.