Suicide prevention strategy top priority for Saskatchewan

August 23, 2019, 9:30 am

John Gormley John Gormley

John Gormley is a broadcaster, lawyer, author and former Progressive Conservative MP whose radio talk show is heard weekdays from 8:30 am–12:30 pm on 650 CKOM Saskatoon and 980 CJME Regina. His column appears in the World-Spectator.


Every 40 seconds somewhere in the world someone takes their own life, according to the Mood Disorders Society of Canada.

In Canada, 4,000 people will commit suicide this year, with men four times more likely to kill themselves than women.

Often linked to mental illness and addictions, suicide has traditionally been stigmatized, borne silently in the agony and grief of those left behind and sanitized in obituaries as “dying suddenly.” Only recently, more brave families have been willing to share that a loved one died by their own hand.

For perspective, twice as many people died from suicide last year in Canada as from traffic collisions, yet the public awareness, discussion, and strategy for combatting suicide pales in comparison to the millions of dollars spent on safe driving campaigns.

According to the Provincial Coroner’s Office, 209 Saskatchewan people committed suicide last year. In recent years, Saskatchewan’s traffic deaths have usually averaged about 130 a year.

Many people who eventually take their lives have suffered from mental disorders. And, with mental illness, the concurrent or dual diagnosis of substance abuse often lurks not far away.

The Centre for Addictions and Mental Health in Toronto reports that people with a mental illness are twice as likely as the general population to abuse substances, with over 20 percent of patients having substance abuse issues.

Of people with substance abuse problems, the Mood Disorders Society estimates that nearly 40 percent of alcoholics have mental health issues and over 50 percent of drug abusers.

Among the many mental health triggers—from adverse childhood experiences to trauma, organic mental illness and others—and the harm wreaked by addictions, there is a complex web of factors surrounding suicide.

It requires broader prevention strategies like risk factor identification and better education and training. At an immediate, lifesaving level, there must be specific and accessible emergency intervention when someone presents with suicidal ideation; and, timely follow-up treatment that is comprehensive yet patient-specific.

In politics, there’s an old adage that success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan. For this reason, policy makers are often deliberate, even timid in developing an aggressive suicide prevention and resilience plan as part of an integrated strategy on mental health and addictions.

But given the deaths, trauma of survivors and indelible mark on communities affected by suicide, it is an issue that must rise above politics and engage the entire community.

Since 2014’s rollout of a 10-year action plan, the provincial government has made gains in raising the profile of mental health and addictions, from increased numbers of beds and treatment strategies to Provincial Court mental health courtrooms. But on a suicide prevention plan there is more that must be done, particularly for immediate, early intervention.

A few weeks ago, the opposition NDP called on the provincial government to enact a specific suicide prevention strategy, which is a good idea. The NDP also put forward Marilyn Irwin, whose odyssey through her son’s mental illness, substance abuse and eventual suicide was as heartbreaking as it was compelling.

While the political critics often identify so called “upstream” social issues like poverty as precursors to mental illness and addictions, these are surely important and should be priorities. But the alleviation of poverty takes time and a broader perspective.

For suicide, the immediate “saving lives today” priority should be pragmatic and a more specific, targeted and comprehensive prevention strategy.

We owe our families and loved ones nothing less.