It is shocking to think that half of all Canadian teenagers consider taking their own lives. For many, it is a fleeting thought, born of despair and loneliness.
But for those who act on their desperation, the outcome is devastating. The loss of a young life reverberates through generations, as families – and society – struggle for years to understand what happened, and grieve for the adult that could have been.
Though teen suicides are an issue across the country, as The Globe and Mail is documenting in its series this week, the problem has particular urgency in the North. In Nunavut, the suicide rate of 15- to 19-year-old men is 40 times the national average (and Canada has one of the highest rates in the developed world).
Nunavut’s new suicide-prevention action plan to address this crisis contains several compelling initiatives that can be applied to assist teens throughout Canada. The plan, announced this month, will see more money invested in mental health and addictions services, an expansion of the help line, and a focus on teaching students how to cope with stress and disappointment. It will also introduce an ambitious research program, and collect statistics on suicide attempts for the first time.
While nobody knows exactly what tips a teenager into becoming suicidal, many suffer from underlying mental health problems, including depression, coupled with the trigger of an emotional loss. Histories of alcohol or drug abuse are also risk factors. Suicide intervention training in schools and community groups can prevent teens from acting on their black thoughts.
“The beauty of suicide intervention training is it doesn’t matter what a person’s reasons are for being suicidal, it allows people to assist those who are in an extremely distressed state,” said Jack Hicks, a Nunavut-based researcher completing his PhD on youth suicide.
Restricting access to lethal means can also save lives, including the placement of barriers on bridges, the removal of lethal prescription drugs and guns from the home.
Ottawa should follow Nunavut’s lead and implement its long-expected mental health strategy, which will help remove the stigma from suicide, improve access to care for children and teenagers, and train doctors, nurses and community leaders to better recognize those at risk.