Reflecting on Mental Health Week 2021: Getting Real about Youth Suicide Prevention

TW: Suicide

Last week marked Mental Health Week in Canada, and this years theme was Name it, Don’t Numb it –  #GetReal for Mental Health. This theme called on folks to share how they really feel, to not just brush off real emotions by saying “we’re fine” and instead “getting real” about how we actually feel. In reflecting on the week it seems there’s still an important area we’re still missing from the discussion.

Getting real about mental health means having tough conversations, and one of those conversations is about youth suicide, and the lack of resources aimed at supporting young people in crisis. In our work we’ve heard from many stakeholders in the youth mental health sector, including youth themselves who’ve shared their concern for the lack of conversation we’re having about youth suicide and we strongly agree. 

In order to really get real about mental health we need to focus attention on youth suicide, youth suicide prevention, and the resources (or lack there of) that exist for young people in crisis, particularly when it comes to marginalized groups. While not every young person experiencing mental distress or mental illness will experience suicidal ideations or crisis situations, a large number will, and we can’t ignore how real those feelings are. 

From “I don’t want to trigger youth if they aren’t already thinking about it” to “I have no idea how to even begin talking about this,” researchers and service providers have shared their frustration with not knowing how to approach these conversations. From “we don’t know what to say to our friends” to “it’s so hard to know where to get help in a crisis like that,” youth have  shared their need for us to have this conversation on a large scale, and to start taking action where gaps exist. We don’t think we can wait any longer. 

Youth Suicide in Canada: What We Know 

While mental health scholars and the media have been issuing warnings of a “second pandemic” of mental health crises, particularly for youth, we already know that suicide is the second leading cause of death amung youth and young aduts in Canada (15-34) (PHAC, 2019). For youth living in First Nations communities these numbers are 7 times higher than the national average, and for Inuit youth, it’s 11 times higher (one of the highest sucide rates globally).Most reports cite 2SLGBTQ+ rate at at least 2-7 times higher than their cis-heteronormative peers, however, a lack of good data collection doesn’t leave us with a clear understanding of suicide rates for this group. 

We also know numbers are underreported when it comes to death by sucide. If we add in the context of COVID-19, we have to realize how COVID-19 has negatively impacted youth mental health. The majority of youth aged 15 to 34 who completed a crowdsourcing survey at the end of April and in early May 2020 reported that their mental health had worsened since the beginning of physical distancing(StatCan, 2020). We need to take action today to support young folks to manage their mental health and well-being during such difficult times before they find themselves in crisis situations.

We have to move beyond awareness of statistics and numbers and move into having the difficult conversations with the young people in our lives. But conversations in and of themselves are insufficient. We need federal and provincial governments to make bold commitments that focus not only on youth, but on youth who are made most vulnerable by decades of government negligence. We don’t need to wait for new vaccine developments or new treatments to start addressing the pandemic we’re already in around youth sucicide, we already know so much about what needs to happen right now to save lives.

Starting the Conversation

Youth suicide remains a very stigmatized issue. Stigma surrounding suicide is deep rooted – from religious beliefs to generational gaps – and in order to open up the conversation on youth suicide we have to address stigma from a community level, providing education to not only a few but to all. 

Entire communities can be, and often are, impacted when a young person dies by suicide, yet, very few communities receive wrap around prevention education. Instead, they may only receive information on sucide (if at all) after a death has occured in the form of grief counseling. Many youth have shared only having space to speak about sucide in a school setting after the loss of a classmate. If we’re only approaching these conversations from a postvention perspective we’re missing so many opportunities for early intervention and prevention.

It’s always important that we approach conversations about youth suicide from a place of empathy and caution – these are serious conversations and can be very triggering, Nonetheless, we can’t let the complexity of youth suicide, and our own fear in opening up these conversations undermine our efforts. – One of the best ways to address our fears is through community- and school-based education. 

To address the fear of youth sucide we need to provide not only education in the form of information, but also actual resources so that everyone has the tools they need to have these conversations in a “real” and open way, but also in a way that is safe for everyone. As an organization, we don’t have all the answers (not yet at least) but we do know providing more tools and resources is required to make sure we don’t continue to ignore the issue, and that we open these conversations safely and intentionally. 

Youth can’t get real about how they feel if we don’t talk to them and give them language to express their emotions. In our work we have heard from folks with lived experience of youth suicidality who have shared their experiences with suicidal ideations at as young as 8 years old. Given we know suicide affects young people across a wide age range, we need to be starting to conversations about emotions at a young age, and to equipt young people with the information they need if they ever found themselves in a crisis situation. We shouldn’t only teach kids to call 911 if they see a fire or if someone around them is hurt, we need to educate kids on what to do if they’re in a crisis situation themselves.

If we equip children and youth with education, resources, and “just in case” plans, and if we provide education and resources to communities as a whole (including all those who work and care for kids), we begin to build up layers of preventative measures that can help reduce the risk of youth suicide. These layers of prevention, met with government action to provide adequate youth mental health services is what wrap-around youth sucide prevention can, and should look like.

Taking Action: Next Steps & Recommendations

Canada remains the only G7 country without a national suicide prevention strategy, and  many communities, advocates and organizations have called for a national strategy in the past. Based on our reflections and our experience working in the youth mental health sector, the following are some of our recommendations for greater government leadership in addressing and preventing youth suicide in Canada: 

  1. Increase federal and provincial education efforts, through coordinated awareness and de-stigmatization campaigns designed in collaboration with those communities most affected by youth suicide. Work with community-based organizations to design and implement education initiatives that respond to the unique needs and contexts of young folks made most vulnerable to youth suicide. 
  2. Increase provincial funding for school-based mental health education and intervention. Enhance connections between schools and community-based child and youth mental health services, and implement strategies to proactively prevent youth suicide through early identification and intervention.  
  3. Increase funding to expand integrated youth mental health services with 24/7 crisis capabilities to provide youth with access to support when and where they need it. Integrated youth services are best equipped to provide youth with the breadth and depth of support needed to address their complex needs. Youth suicide does not exist in a vacuum – youth struggling with suicide often need access to both crisis intervention and a variety of other services and supports pertaining to their health and well-being. 

References

  1. Statistics Canada. Suicide in Canada: Key Statistics. Available at: https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/phac-aspc/documents/services/publications/healthy-living/suicide-canada-key-statistics-infographic/pub-eng.pdf
  2. Statistics Canada. Canadians’ mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Available at: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/200527/dq200527b-eng.htm.