The rate of death by suicide among Canadian young people is a public health crisis.
We have heard this time and time again. The September 2018 Raising Canada report from the University of Calgary and Children First Canada reiterates the fact that suicide is the second leading cause of death among Canadian young people under the age of 17 and is preventable. September 10 is set aside each year as World Suicide Prevention Day and provides time to take stock on how we are doing. Rightly so, there are many government programs and organizations focused on suicide prevention, research, and response. One often overlooked part of suicide prevention is the important role that youth can have in suicide prevention.
Young people are experts in their own experiences and they know the pathways to wellness for themselves, their peers, and communities. Young people offer informal and formal peer support – and are often the first ones sought out by their peers when they are in crisis. They connect with other young people online as well as through youth programs, and youth plan and lead initiatives that improve and celebrate communities, language, and culture.
On February 21 and 22, 2018, Wisdom2Action, the Embrace Life Council, the Mental Health Commission of Canada, and many others brought together youth and adults from coast to coast to coast to Vancouver. The participants were already active in schools, health care, governments, and communities to support young people to embrace life and lead youth-led suicide prevention initiatives. Sharing their wisdom and experiences on how best to support young people to lead suicide prevention in their communities was a profound, yet rudimentary, concept.
The young people and adult allies in the room in Vancouver talked about different types of peer support programs and training, the need for decolonization and real efforts towards reconciliation, land-based programs that support youth to reclaiming indigenous language and culture, connections between elders, adults and youth, online programs and services, and so much more.
Yet, their collective energy and commitment has not been matched by our Canadian context. In early 2018, polling commissioned by a group of national youth-serving agencies indicates that 70% of Canadian adults did not feel that Canadian youth are ready to be civic leaders. Think about recent court decisions in Canada- such as in the cases of Colten Bushie and Tina Fontaine and the long and unnecessary fight for justice for Abdoul Abdi- and it is easy to see how young Canadians may not feel valued.
Engagement, activation and leadership can foster feelings of belonging, connection and empowerment. Young people should be supported by adults to identify and create projects and programs for each other, peers, families, and communities.
Suicide contagion, for example, is a real risk among young people. However, limited research evidence and practice insights suggest that youth engagement and youth-led initiatives help to strengthen personal and community resilience and well-being. This helps insulate young people from the feelings of despair and isolation often brought on by suicides in their circles. The research exists to help inform policy makers on how to best support young people, if only they would use it.
Time and time again, in communities across Canada we see the vision, leadership and engagement by young people to support the mental health and well being of their peers, schools, families and communities in many sectors and in many ways.
What about the rest of us? What is our role?
As adult allies, we need to support youth activation and look at how we are, or are not, making space for young people to be heard.
At the end of the Embrace Life event in Vancouver, participants were asked to write down on a small piece of paper what they wanted someone to know if they needed help remembering how to embrace life. Youth and adults alike wrote messages of love, hope, acceptance, resistance and support.
In the face of current injustices and contexts, what would you write to young people? And more importantly, how can you work to make the change needed to support young people in Canada.
Watch Global News at 6: Suicide rates in Nova Scotia continuing to rise
Lisa Lachance is the Executive Director of Wisdom2Action and doctoral student in Health at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Adam Akpik is the Project Development Coordinator at the Embrace Life Council in Iqaluit, Nunavut. He is also on the Youth Advisory Committee for Wisdom2Action.