By Pam Dillon
The room was full of linen-covered tables, well-heeled parents and leading experts. For this community luncheon every ticket was sold, since the focus was on youth mental health. When a lull in conversation offered the opportunity, one attendee explained why she was there: “My daughter is suicidal.” The mother was matter-of-fact. Her daughter wasn’t going to school, talking to her parents or getting out of bed. Neither was she taking her medication or cooperating with her doctor. Mom looked stricken.
She’s certainly not alone. All around that particular room, family stories were shared. These days, at luncheons and water coolers, in school staff rooms and family kitchens, mental health is increasingly a topic of conversation.
And suicide is no longer a taboo subject. Instead it’s the focus of a high-profile, multi-sector community effort that’s changing how things are done around here.
In fact over 50 local agencies and stakeholders are sharing resources, coordinating services and working together to develop suicide prevention, intervention and response strategies. School boards, hospitals, social service providers, youth organizations and all sorts of others are part of the Community Suicide Prevention Network (CSPN).
Co-chairs Joanne Lowe, executive director of the Youth Services Bureau (YSB), and George Weber, president and CEO of The Royal, are at the helm. And Lowe says, “The more we acknowledge that there are very few people untouched by mental health and suicide, the more we [create] opportunities for people to understand it and prevent it.” As director of mental health research at CHEO, network member Mario Cappelli sees how that plays out. “With increased awareness comes increased need for service.” He, too, is passionate about this network’s goal of suicide prevention. There’s good reason: suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth aged 10 to 24 in Canada.
“Any suicide is one too many,” Weber notes. Though locally the number of suicides has stayed steady over the last couple of years “we want to cut it by 20 per cent by 2020.”
Cappelli adds that although there hasn’t been any increase in suicide cases, “what we have found is there’s been a substantive increase in the number of young people seeking mental health services.” To that end, monthly visits to CHEO’s emergency department have jumped from about 60 in January 2007 to 160 in January 2012. “Over the past five years these visits have tripled.”
Not only is it okay to talk about suicide now, he says, “Parents are realizing that it’s okay to bring their child to the emergency department when they are in crisis; it’s okay, regardless of whether they have a broken heart or a broken bone.”
A New Way of Thinking
In fact, community-wide, people are learning a lot about a once off-limits topic. Thanks to CSPN, Cappelli says hospitals, community agencies and researchers are working together “to develop ways of thinking about how we deal with suicide.” There’s a focus on cooperation, collaboration and strategic community mobilization⎯and everybody’s on board. Since December 2010 when the network formed, there has been much progress.
• Ottawa’s first-ever summit on youth suicide prevention took place in February 2012.
• Know What to Do, a free, bilingual pocket guide has been published. It provides tips for responding when a person is going through a crisis or having thoughts of suicide.
• Parents’ Lifelines of Eastern Ontario (PLEO) has launched a confidential telephone support line 613 321-3211⎯to help parents navigate the mental health system and access one-on-one support from another parent.
• In 2013, CSPN received funding for a pilot program to build on partnerships between the mental health community and schools. This initiative includes education about GLBTTQ issues. It will enhance mental health and suicide prevention programs already in place by involving youth leaders to deliver peer programming. The first two high schools to participate are Glebe Collegiate and West Carleton Secondary School.
“More and more people are working together because we have a common goal,” Weber notes. There are efforts to help high-risk groups, such as GLBTTQ youth and youth leaving hospital, to engage families, to involve organizations youth regularly access and to ensure responses are appropriate.
“For example, we know we need more community mental health services,” Lowe points out. “People shouldn’t have to go through [so] many hoops to get the services they need.”
And everybody can be part of the effort to make Ottawa a suicide safer community. If you’re wondering about somebody you know, don’t hesitate to speak up, Weber says “Deal with behaviour that does not appear normal to you. Have the conversation if there has been changed behaviour to understand why it has changed.” “We need to start paying attention and acting on that,” Lowe adds.
When? The answer is unanimous: “Now!”
To get a free copy of the Know What to Do guide, call the Ottawa Public Health info line at 613 580-6744 or 1 866-426-8885. Call Parents’ Lifelines of Eastern Ontario (PLEO) at 613 321-3211 and see www.pleo.on.ca.