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Prof. Irwin Cotler – Debate on National Suicide Prevention Strategy (Opposition Motion)

Posted on October 5, 2011

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Hon. Irwin Cotler (Mount Royal, Lib.):

Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Vancouver Quadra.

It is a shocking fact which almost defies belief that, as the United Nations pointed out in 2009, every year worldwide more human beings kill themselves than are killed in all wars, terrorist attacks and homicides combined. While the motion before us focuses on Canada, it is important to realize that suicide occurs in every country, on every continent, and exists in every religious and age group. It claims almost a million lives annually; yet, despite its existence from the dawn of human history, this global tragedy has yet to receive the attention, and even more important, the action it warrants.

Today as we meet, 10 Canadians will take their own lives. This is a per capita rate three times that of the United States itself, largely due to the staggering number of deaths among aboriginal Canadians.

As well, the member for Toronto Centre pointed this out earlier today.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for men aged 25 to 29 and 40 to 44, and for women aged 30 to 34. Furthermore, suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth between the ages of 10 and 24.

Indeed, the suicide rate for youth in Canada is the third highest in the industrialized world. As well, the suicide rate for first nations is shockingly five to seven times higher than non-first nations populations. This is horrific and painful data.

Moreover, suicide is not only the leading cause of death for aboriginal men aged 10 to 19, but the suicide rate for Inuit youth is among the highest in the world, 11 times the national average. Among the most disturbing and painful data available, according to a 2008 study done in Nunavut, nearly 43% of respondents had thoughts of suicide in the previous seven days.

As if these statistics are not troubling enough, let us appreciate that behind each statistic is a human being. I sometimes worry that the abstraction of statistics takes us away from appreciating the full depth of the tragedy in individual and collective terms. The reality is that death by suicide can be prevented.

As for the suicide of adolescents, what goes through a young person’s mind before making such a terrible choice is not something one can fully appreciate. Studies indicate that issues of social integration, feelings of alienation, changes in family situations, problems with self-image as well as rage and self-control issues may all contribute to adolescent suicide.

A government report on teen suicide concluded the following.

While the reasons for suicide are complex and difficult to define, the experience of adolescence brings unique problems to this high-risk age group.

Indeed, no part of Canadian society is immune, though certain segments, as I mentioned, particularly the aboriginal peoples are specifically at risk, as well as youth, seniors, Canadians with disabilities, those who identify as a sexual minority, and members of the armed forces.

While the causes of suicide are complex, often involving biological, psychological, social, environmental and spiritual factors, in various forms of combinations, 90% of suicides have a diagnosable psychiatric illness. Tragically, these conditions often go undiagnosed. This is a problem that must be addressed, not only nationally, but internationally, as well.

Again, we are speaking of something that can be prevented. Indeed, a government report from 1990 concluded the following.

The complexity of the issue must not discourage community or government agency efforts to deal with [this] problem…

In short, I support this motion as a step in the right direction for combating suicide and hope it enjoys the full support of the House when it comes to a vote later today. There is no question here in Canada that what is needed is a national suicide prevention strategy.

Regrettably, in Canada, suicide prevention is fragmented, disconnected, often incoherent, and lacking in a national vision and strategy. The difficult question that arises, therefore, is, what should this vision be? What should this strategy entail?

The government need not reinvent the wheel here. Blueprints for a national strategy from organizations such as the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention exist and can be used in planning the government’s course of action. Indeed, this plan in particular serves as a model for suicide prevention strategies in several provinces and was recommended to the government in a 2006 Senate committee report.

Some of the many recommendations and goals of the CASP strategy included, and I am extrapolating for reasons of time and abbreviating, as well, with respect to the examples: developing a co-ordinated public awareness campaign; developing national forums on suicide, generally, as well as on specific target populations and specific issues. For example, just as when I was minister of justice, we had federal-provincial-territorial meetings of ministers of justice on specific issues. So, in order to highlight a particular issue, there could surely be a federal-provincial-territorial meeting of ministers of health focused on suicide, in particular.

The recommendations and goals of the CASP strategy also included: supporting and also enhancing the number of public and private institutions and volunteer organizations active in suicide prevention. Here the government could initiate a grant program for suicide awareness and prevention campaigns.

They also included: increasing the proportion of the public that values mental, physical, social, spiritual and holistic health. Here the government could create some sort of participaction program focused on mental health.

They also included: supporting the development of specific strategies by and for Inuit, first nations, Métis and all aboriginal peoples; encouraging the development of specific strategies for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. Indeed, we have been witness to a troubling wave of teen suicides of gay and lesbian youth in the United States recently, reminding us that we need to work on diversity and acceptance initiatives, as well as anti-bullying strategies.

They also included: supporting the development and use of technology to reduce the lethality of a means for suicide. For example, firearm locks, carbon monoxide shut-off controls, bridge barriers, subway stop barriers, and strengthened medication containers.

Finally, they also concluded: developing a national crisis line network to connect existing crisis lines and websites to provide services, particularly where none exist; and developing and implementing support structures for families living with suicidal people, acknowledging their roles as caregivers and as contributing members of the care team.

In short, there is much that can be done. It is up to the government to act, so that it can be done.

Indeed, the 2006 Senate committee report I mentioned earlier made some 118 recommendations, from legislative changes, such Criminal Code amendments, to broader recommendations about the delivery of health care services.

Indeed, it is unfortunate that its recommendation “That governments take immediate steps to address the shortage of mental health professionals who specialize in treating children and youth” has not, regrettably, been heeded, and child and youth mental health services continue to be significantly less resourced than physical health services, and service delivery remains fragmented at all levels.

Before closing, I would also like to mention, and this was not entirely the focus of the debate here today, the particular issue of suicide among the elderly. Let us not forget that there is a high rate of suicide among the very old, be it after the loss of a spouse or loved one, or when used as a means to end suffering from illness. This, too, must be addressed as part of a national strategy and vision.

Today is, in effect, a call to action, to fight the stigmas surrounding suicide and mental health, and to come together in common cause to address this issue. We know the statistics and we have plenty of tools at our disposal to act. What we must do, in fact, is to act, and act now, to prevent the preventable tragedies that may yet, and will, occur.

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