Finlay: Canada remains oddly out of step on suicide prevention

Risk of suicide, attempts at suicide and actual deaths by suicide have increased dramatically since the arrival of the novel coronavirus last spring. In Toronto’s subway system, even with substantially reduced ridership because of COVID-19, deaths by suicide and attempts in April, May and June nearly doubled compared with the same period in previous years. Across the country, and in the United States, suicide crisis lines have reported a surge in distress calls.

Often the causes of suicide are a mystery. But that’s not the case for one grieving family who recently shared their story with me. They laid the blame squarely on the federal government, whose inept and insensitive handling of the CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit) suddenly left many who were depending on without money, explanation, or hope of having the problem fixed.

Jordan (a gender-neutral name to protect the victim’s identity at the family’s request) had been receiving CERB payments since April. But in June, the Canada Revenue Agency website wouldn’t allow Jordan to apply for what was then the final month of the benefit. Instead, an online message appeared with a toll-free number for something called the “Canada Emergency Benefits Validation and Identity Protection Service.” When Jordan called the number, the voice at the other end said the phones were staffed by “volunteers” and, with hundreds of inquiries about denied CERB benefits every day, it would be some time before a CRA representative could call back to say why the payments were cut off. That call never came.

Jordan left several more messages — all with the same outcome. By early July, even the volunteers who answered the 800 number had vanished. A new greeting announced no one was available to take the call, and the line was abruptly disconnected. Jordan was never able to learn why these needed payments were stopped. Out of money, and feeling abandoned by the government that kept telling Canadians “we’re with you,” Jordan fell into that endless dark night that so often precedes a death of despair.

I had been reaching out to MPs, cabinet ministers, opposition party leaders and the media since June, when I began to receive desperate messages from dozens of folks who were left financially — and emotionally — stranded by this CERB roadblock. Nobody was interested.

The fact is Canada is oddly out of step when it comes to suicide prevention. The U.S. is briskly moving forward with the creation of a national, easy-to-remember three-digit 988 hotline for mental health crisis and suicide prevention. Despite my campaigning for it over the past year, and even in the face of a wave of deadly outcomes stemming from 9-1-1 mental health-related calls, Canada is not. The United Kingdom has a designated minister for suicide prevention. Canada does not. Every G7 country has a suicide prevention strategy with reliable funding and measurable progress goals — except Canada. On government websites in the U.S., U.K. and Europe, current suicide prevention hotline numbers are prominently displayed. Canada’s national suicide crisis line is absent from the federal government’s own COVID-19 mental wellness portal.

We all have to be more alert to the signs of what I call mental health bruises, strains and fractures, and treating mental health risks in their early stage, just as we do with cancer and heart disease. We also need our influential institutions — including governments, the courts and the giant corporations that impact every aspect of daily living —  to become better agents of compassion and healing, instead of being the causes of emotional harm they sometimes are.

Concern for mental health is not something to be trotted out in a prime minister’s speeches but forgotten in policy execution. Like botched police wellness checks and the deaths of despair that are sweeping our Indigenous communities, law enforcement and the military, Jordan’s suicide is another stark reminder of the costs when the emotionally vulnerable among us are left to struggle in a world which too often appears disconnected from the semblance of a caring society.

Kathleen Finlay advocates for innovative mental health policy and is CEO of The Center for Patient Protection.

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