Michael Wilson, a former federal cabinet minister, is chairman of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, and chairman of Barclays Capital Canada Inc.
We can no longer ignore the alarming evidence: Every day, at least 10 Canadians die by suicide. Do we have the courage to face down stigma and get help into the hands of those who need it?
As a former finance minister, I understand the tough challenges Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau face in preparing the 2016 budget and allocating spending. The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) is asking the government to commit funds for a far-reaching national suicide prevention project, based on a plan that accounts for fiscal reality and maximizes the use of existing community resources to help those at risk of suicide.
As a father, the rate of suicide in Canada isn’t just an alarming statistic, it’s a deeply personal matter. We lost our son, Cameron, to suicide in 1995. I know the devastation it leaves in its wake.
But there are “gatekeepers” in every community who can help – key people who regularly interact with members of the public and are well positioned to recognize suicide signs and therefore intervene. The gatekeeper model is already in place and achieving results in Quebec and abroad – with as much as a 20-per-cent reduction in suicide rates in two years.
The MHCC is seeking a mandate to roll out a demonstration project in 13 communities across Canada, zeroing in on high-risk populations: military members and veterans, indigenous peoples, young people and middle-aged men. The project would then be implemented from coast to coast to coast.
Gatekeepers are those members of our communities who come into regular contact with people, everyone from teachers and barbers to spiritual and religious leaders to municipal staff. Physicians, nurses and other health-care first responders also have consistent and direct interaction with people, not to mention a collective work force that numbers in the hundreds of thousands.
The MHCC suicide prevention project will provide gatekeepers with the knowledge and tools needed to identify those at risk and connect them to help. It will enhance specialized supports for crises situations as well as restrict access to methods or places where a high number of suicides occur. The project will improve public awareness and bolster research to continually expand our prevention knowledge base.
Most of all, it will help us confront the uncomfortable reality of suicide. It is far better to raise a difficult subject than it is to endure the silence and unanswered questions that inevitably follow. Our proposal targets stigma and demystifies a topic that has been dismissed as too uncomfortable, for far too long.
Too often, suicide is the tragic end in the fight against post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). More than half of military veterans and first responders who seek help for mental illness from their primary-care provider leave without effective solutions. That is why, alongside our partner Mood Disorders Society of Canada, we are asking for modest funds to give primary-care providers and gatekeepers the information they need to recognize PTSD and help people sooner.
The Ontario government recently announced a plan to help first responders – such as police officers, firefighters and ambulance attendants – deal with PTSD as a result of employment. But before workplace claims are initiated, PTSD needs to be recognized and diagnosed.
High rates of mental illness and suicide are also found in indigenous communities. We will invite and partner with indigenous communities and work with them to develop a culturally safe and respectful approach to reduce suicide rates.
The funding we seek pales in comparison with the $50-billion that mental illness costs the Canadian economy each year in health care and lost productivity. As priorities are weighed for this year’s budget, we can no longer ignore the alarming evidence that we need stronger investment in suicide prevention. And we need to use the critical resources already in place to effectively diagnose and treat PTSD.
We must knit together as communities so that when people are at risk, help is within their grasp. Addressing suicide is no small task. Each one of us can and must help because, truly, it takes a village.
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