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Recent suicides across Canada highlight need for national strategy

A woman and a child walk through the streets in Attawapiskat, Ont., on Monday, April 16, 2016. Health Canada makes some on-reserve patients jump through hoops or wait longer than non-indigenous Canadians to access prescription drugs their doctors believe they need to treat mental illnesses, a psychiatrist who has worked in First Nations communities says. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

The Canadian Press

A recent spate of suicides across Canada underscores an urgent need for a national strategy to help prevent future deaths, according to an editorial published Tuesday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

The federal government must lead a push that could eventually see suicide-prevention programs in schools, more crisis helplines and better ways of getting help to young people who have been abused or who might otherwise be at risk for suicide, the authors argue.

"Let's take a preventative approach. Let's take that long-term developmental approach. Let's safeguard our children so they don't have to grow up in such despair that they take their own lives," said Laura Eggertson, a journalist and lead author of the editorial.

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Every year, nearly 4,000 Canadians die by suicide. It's the second-leading cause of death, after car accidents, for Canadians of ages 15 to 34, but more than half of suicides occur among men 45 and older. Aboriginal youth are about five to six times more likely to die by suicide than their non-aboriginal peers. Among Inuit men living in Nunavut, the suicide rate is up to 40 times higher than non-Inuit men, the editorial notes.

In recent months, the issue has been in renewed focus after news of large numbers of suicides among young Canadians, many of them aboriginal. In April, crisis workers were sent to Attawapiskat, a remote First Nation in Northern Ontario, after more than 100 people, many of them young, attempted suicide over the course of seven months. From December to March, five youth from the small village in Nunavik, Inuit territory in northern Quebec, died by suicide. And earlier this year, five young people in Woodstock, Ont., took their lives over the course of a four-month period.

Officials say there were an additional 36 suicide attempts by young people in the surrounding county this year.

The incidents highlight a much bigger problem that needs urgent attention on a national level in the form of a prevention strategy, the editorial says.

Eggertson and co-author Dr. Kirsten Patrick, deputy editor of the CMAJ, point to Quebec as a model of how a suicide-prevention strategy could work. That province managed to dramatically lower suicide rates over the course of a decade by implementing a comprehensive series of new policies and programs, such as a province-wide suicide-crisis phone number and extensive follow-up of patients who have attempted suicide.

But such a major initiative will only work if it has backing from various levels of government, said Marion Cooper, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association in Manitoba and Winnipeg. "I think we need federal, provincial [and] municipal collaboration," she said. "Canadians want to see a national suicide-prevention strategy, not just a document that sits on policy makers' shelves."

Eggertson agrees. She argues that the Public Health Agency of Canada should lead the co-ordination of a national suicide-prevention effort to ensure a national reach and a comprehensive approach. It also needs ample funding to help ensure it works. In the editorial, she and Patrick write that next year's federal budget "must pledge the means to developing a national suicide-prevention strategy" that involves indigenous communities.

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"If a strategy is just words, it doesn't accomplish much," Eggertson said.

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