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We need federal leadership on mental health

Posted by Bob Rae on October 15, 2012 | No Comments

Arlene and I came in late last night to Niagara Falls after visits to Goose Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Kuujjuaq in northern Quebec.

I spoke yesterday morning to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention – and am sharing what I said.

“Just a few hours ago in Kuujjuaq Arlene and I were visiting the local high school, and saw a colourful mural on a wall dedicated to the memory of three students who had killed themselves a few years ago.  Then on the wall in the gym we saw the “I Promise to Live” pledge signed by their classmates.  It was a stark reminder that suicide rates in Inuit communities are 11 times higher than in the general population.

Over a hundred years ago the French sociologist Emil Durkheim wrote his groundbreaking book on suicide, reminding the world that while an act of individual despair, it has to be understood as a social phenomenon, with causes and consequences that go beyond the personal tragedy.

The suicide rate in Canada is higher today than in the 1950’s.  It is past time that we bring it out of the shadows.  Let me suggest some critical elements of a national strategy.

We have to situate suicide in the broader context of mental health.  The stigma associated with “craziness” is even greater for suicide.  Amanda Todd’s tragic death this past week should make us understand that there are 70 people a week who take their own lives, and hundreds more who try to.  The stigma of shame and isolation is still with us, as is the lie that these are issues of personal and private responsibility for which there is no real cure.

We have, in fact, made huge strides in the treatment of mental health, but it remains a deep crisis for our society.  One in five Canadians is directly affected.  Tens of billions of dollars are lost to the economy.  And the support system is a patchwork quilt of volunteers, centres with no funding and inadequate resources.

The stigma is still there and must be fought with far more resources than today.  Canada is a laggard, not a leader.  We simply don’t invest the resources, in detection, in treatment, in jobs, in housing, in research, in breaking down the walls and barriers.  Other countries do a better job, invest more, help more, and cure more.  We need to move from a culture of despair and neglect to one of hope.  It takes more than words to do that, it takes a national strategy.

The Mental Health Commission has asked for dollars to make a difference – Mr Harper has refused, but he’s wrong to do so.  That needs to change.

We need to do more about cyber bullying, about kids’ self esteem, about abuse wherever it happens.  It will take more than words to make it happen.

Many years ago as a community worker I faced my own mental health challenge, a battle with depression.  One Christmas I got an urgent call from the daughter of a client, Mrs. Blair, who I could hear screaming uncontrollably in the background.  I went to their little apartment and could see the complete distress she was in, took her to the hospital and visited her there for a few days.  In time she recovered her balance, and then thanked me.  I know that every distress centre has these stories, as well as the searing memories of people who were beyond help.  We need to build a culture of love and hope, which requires government leadership but also means each of us has to help when we can.  My grandmother used to call it “take[ing] the human footsteps”.  I think of friends who have fallen to the terrible sword of depression, and I think too of Gloria Blair.”

Bob Rae

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