When Canadian children and youth struggle with self-harm and thoughts of suicide, they increasingly turn to emergency rooms for help. Instead of getting it, many go home to linger on long wait lists and with no follow-up plan for the care they do receive.
But there are new ways to deliver better care – solutions that can save lives. Canada remains the only G8 country without a national suicide strategy that sets standards for care and targets to reach. The need for such a strategy is more urgent than ever during this pandemic, which has left many unemployed, isolated or unable to access the social supports they need. In a Globe and Mail series, Erin Anderssen explores what that strategy would look like and how a better mental health system could help these young patients get the help they need.
This is a series about solutions. How can Canada set new standards for youth suicide care? What is already working, both here and around the world? The Globe explores how families, doctors, researchers and communities are trying to create a better mental health system.
In the past 10 years, the number of young Canadians seeking help for a mental health issues in one the country’s emergency departments has nearly doubled. Many are teenagers and young adults who return again and again, seeking help for self-harm or suicidal behaviour. One of them was Anthony Nauss, a Nova Scotia student who died by suicide in 2018.
In this story, the result of interviews with more than two dozen families, The Globe explores where the system fell short in Anthony’s case and others like it, and how a better-designed standard of care could ensure young people in crisis get treatment before it’s too late.
A better emergency room
Madison Croskery of North Bay, Ont., remembers being traumatized when she was 16 and came to the emergency room seeking help for suicidal thoughts. Her suicide-watch room was locked, with harsh, bright lights and a security guard outside.
That’s not the kind of experience she’d get in an emPath unit, a new model of emergency room introduced at an increasing number of U.S. hospitals. They have no locked rooms, and instead of waiting anxiously in an uncomfortable plastic chair, visitors have recliners and tables with board games. One Ontario hospital is proposing to be the first in Canada to have an emPath.
Train the parents, treat the patient
When parents learn that a child is thinking of suicide, they’ll want to help, but may not know how – and if the child dies, they may blame themselves, or fear that others blame them. Lynn Courey and Mike Menu felt that helplessness as they struggled to support their daughter, Sasha Menu Courey, who died by suicide in 2011.
Ms. Courey is now president of the SashBear Foundation, which aims to spare other parents that helplessness and organizes free workshops to teach parents how to recognize and prevent mental distress. Here’s an overview of how other organizations are doing the same, and how researchers in Europe and the United States are trying to perfect a more systematic type of field-training.
Is zero suicide achievable?
Even among mental-health experts, there’s disagreement about whether any system could be designed with the goal of preventing every suicide, every time. But a new project in Southwestern Ontario aims to do just that.
The initiative, called Project Now, includes mental-health education in middle school that can identify struggling youth early on, and allow better access to intensive talk therapy to help people manage their feelings. Project Now is still in the planning stages, but has $3-million in Ontario government funding to work with.
Need some help?
If you need professional counselling right now or are having thoughts of suicide, call Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868, text 686868, or visit kidshelpphone.ca, or Crisis Service Canada at 1-833-456-4566, crisisservicescanada.ca.
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