Published on January 3rd, 2014 | from CAMH

Power in Hope

By Dr. Catherine Zahn, President & CEO of CAMH

Sometimes, a champion emerges from an unexpected place and points out a pathway to a hopeful solution in the fact of a seeming insoluble problem.

Problem – deaths from suicide in Aboriginal communities. Champion – Laura Eggerston.

Laura is an award-winning journalist who has worked for the Canadian Press, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. Following  the death by suicide of two of her daughter’s Ojibway half-sisters, at ages 25 and 19, she made a proposal to the Michener Awards Foundation and received a grant “to tell the stories of young people and communities in crisis, and to explore public policy approaches that could help us stem this tide.” In a recent article in the Globe and Mail, Bob Rae also shed light on the devastating impact of suicide, in Aboriginal communities and beyond, and reminds us that “suicide is as much a societal as a personal tragedy”.

Laura’s investigative reporting is now published in a four part series in the Canadian Medical Association Journal from July to October 2013.  In it, she writes about the stunning incidence of death by suicide in Nunavut at 10 times the rate in Canada – for young men ages 15 to 24, at 50 times the national rate.

She combines a scholarly review of the recent McGill study by Jack Hicks and Dr. Eduardo Chachamovich with on-site interviews of youngsters contemplating suicide and families of those who tragically succeeded. She acknowledges history and emphasizes the roles of childhood sexual, emotional and physical abuse. The stories told by the abuse victims and the surviving family members are raw and emotionally explosive.

Laura also searches out stories of survival, mutual assistance and an organized approach to change that could be transformational. I learned of the Government of Nunavut’s Suicide Prevention Strategy and Action Plan, and about the ongoing implementation and early successes of on-the-ground programs with snappy names like ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) and safeTALK – education and training programs adapted specifically for First Nations communities.

I’m making it my business to get to know Laura Eggerston, and understand how I can personally support her in encouraging our government to carry on, study and expand these programs.

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2 Responses to Power in Hope

  1. Patricia Jane says:

    I am deeply saddened by the stories of the two Ojibway sisters who committed suicide and by the death of Chris Peloso. Part of my sadness comes from knowing that many ordinary people have committed suicide and nobody in high places has changed a thing; but Mr. Peloso’s death seems to be so much more important because his spouse is a former Ontario Minister of Health and they had many friends in political and health circles and in the media. I also question Bob Rae’s focus on depression just because Mr. Peloso had depression. I can understand a politician not knowing any better, but the doctors at CAMH and other hospitals know that about 45 percent of people with schizophrenia attempt suicide and about ten percent complete the act; Many of these deaths are among young people in their teens and twenties, but mental health professionals and politicians shrug them off as inevitable and no one has suggested a national strategy for suicide prevention among people with schizophrenia. A mother I know had two sons with schizophrenia and they both died by suicide. Why has her pain not been as important as the pain of Mr. Peloso’s family and friends? Could CAMH take some leadership in changing this? The first step would be to improve access to treatment because schizophrenia is a treatable brain disorder,yet only about one-third of people with schizophrenia actually receive treatment.

  2. Thanks Patricia, you’ve made some important points, including about the high rate of suicide amongst people with schizophrenia. The devastating effect of this was discussed on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning show only this morning. As you say, the pain and tragedy of suicide affects many people and we need to bring attention to this reality. Improving access to services is important, and we also know that stigma is a major barrier to people getting the help they need. The more we talk about the realities of mental illness, the impact as well as the potential for recovery, the less stigma there will be.

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