NDP MP Megan Leslie is tabling a private member’s bill to call for a national strategy on suicide prevention. Citing the statistics that every year 3,500 Canadians die by suicide, and that it’s the second leading cause of death in the 10 to 24 age group, Leslie feels it’s time to act.
“Suicide is a concern for our communities, but in reality, this is a national issue,” Leslie says. “It’s a reflection of the lack of supports and services for that individual, and understanding of what the underlying factors were in that person’s life.”
The bill would call for national guidelines for best practices, the use of community and culture-based knowledge in prevention, and an assessment of current services.
The issue of queer youth suicide, which has made headlines in North America in recent months, is not lost on those who support the bill.
“Certainly we’ve known for years that gay and lesbian youth are at tremendous risk, and that’s been painfully demonstrated again in the US over the last few months,” says Tim Wall, executive director of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention (CASP).
Wall says that CASP developed a suicide prevention strategy about four years ago, and in that strategy they can identify at-risk groups, including queer youth.
“Part of a strategy and part of preventing suicide is also addressing issues of homophobia and ensuring that gay and lesbian youth have the support that they need and can live in environments and cultures that support them for who they are,” Wall says. “Those things are central to an effective strategy.”
“Also, an effective strategy will, in addition to identifying those numbers of individuals who would be in high-risk groups, also need to look at education around the stigma,” says Marion Wright, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association.
“If you think of someone who is [queer] as a youth, they’re going to be running into many walls, and if in fact talking about their suicidal thoughts is a barrier because of the stigma, then they are not going to be taking those very necessary actions to preserve their life.”
For Wall, however, there is a personal element to these prevention strategies.
“As a gay man, I certainly remember the pain as a youth, and even having supportive and loving and caring parents, it was difficult, and I remember going to a guidance counsellor – I was struggling,” he says.
“I had thoughts of suicide, and going to the guidance counsellor to begin to talk to someone about what I was struggling with, and when I told her that I had sometimes thought of suicide, her response was ‘Don’t be silly,’” Wall recounts. “That conversation didn’t go any further, and certainly I don’t want any gay or lesbian youth to encounter any similar sorts of responses that are devoid of any kind of compassion or understanding.”
Leslie points to the It Gets Better campaign as an example of the community coming together to address the issue of queer youth suicides.
“It’s this instantaneous flash of community support, community action, reaction to [queer] youth who’ve committed suicide, and it’s this incredible grassroots response. And it’s there because there is no leadership on this issue,” Leslie says. “There is nothing to grab onto, and say yes, we support that, that’s what we want – there’s this total void. Again, it’s not gaps – we’re not talking about gaps, but giant chasms. But the It Gets Better campaign is a wonderful campaign, but it has been born out of the fact that we are not acting on this issue. It’s beyond urgent.”
Urgency, however, is one of the uphill battles the bill faces, as it lies low in the Order of Precedence, by which private member’s business is determined.
“If the government said, ‘Please pull this bill’ – you can’t have two bills on the same issue – we want to enact it – hallelujah,” Leslie says. “I would pull it in a heartbeat. If government said in fact, we’re going to make this a part of the mandate of the mental health commission? Wonderful – I will pull it. If government says this is actually about public health, and we want this to be part of the Public Health Agency? I would pull it.
“This is not about this bill. What this is for me is about prevention suicide in Canada.”