‘Postvention’ a focus of local suicide prevention initiative

GUELPH – “We need to understand that suicide is not about wanting to die. It’s about struggling to live.”

That statement from Here4Hope suicide prevention project lead Cecilia Marie Roberts summarizes much about the aims of a multi-agency partnership striving to reduce the number of suicides in this region. Roberts gave an update on the program to county councillors on Oct. 31.

The first-of-its-kind partnership between  Wellington County and the Canadian Mental Health Association of Waterloo-Wellington (CMHA) is designed to lead the work of promoting life and preventing suicide in the area, under the “Here4Hope” strategy.

Council passed a resolution on June 27 to pursue the strategy, developed in partnership with the CMHA and the Wellington County OPP.

The resolution goes hand in hand with a recent Community Safety and Policing Grant application submitted by OPP Inspector Scott Lawson, on behalf of the police services board, to the Ministry of the Solicitor General.

Wellington County OPP applied for a three-year grant of $180,000 per year to implement the Integrated Mobile Police and Crisis Team (IMPACT) – Suicide Prevention/Postvention Support Program.

The county’s investment in the partnership with CMHA is $295,000 over three years.

In a written report, county director of human resources Susan Farrelly outlined some of the action taken through the partnership:

– SafeTalk, a half-day alertness training session to prepare anyone age 15 or older, regardless of prior experience or training, to become a suicide-alert helper, is being provided on a monthly basis. Since June, 126 people have received the training through the County of Wellington;

– a Wellness Steering Committee has been created, consisting of county staff members and Roberts to help lead and operationalize an Employee Wellness Strategy;

– planning for a 2019 Community Here4Hope event is underway. Cheryl Pounder, who played on six women’s world championship hockey teams for Canada, will be the keynote speaker. The Fergus event will have an afternoon component focusing on youth and an evening session for the community at large at the Centre Wellington Community Sportsplex on Dec. 3.

Roberts pointed out that 10 Canadians die by suicide every day.

“As a serious public health issue, suicide is the ninth leading cause of death in Canada and it creates long-term harm … to individuals, families and communities,” she stated.

She noted that between 2009 and 2017 Wellington County lost, on average, eight people annually to suicide, while from 2013 to 2018 the county average rose to 13 deaths by suicide.

“So there is clearly something happening here.”

Part of the problem, Roberts indicated, is that those in need are not accessing the help that is available.

Citing statistics from the Ontario Coronor, Roberts told council, “For last 10 years, of all the people who were lost to suicide, less than 50 per cent have been connected to our services.”

That illustrates the need for the work being done by the partnership, she said, stating, “We need to work together to promote life.”

Locally, incidence of suicide, at 74 per cent is most prevalent among males, while females account for 26% of suicides in Wellington County. Broken down by age, the 30 to 60 age range accounts for 65% of deaths, compared to 15% among those under 30 and 20% for seniors (over 61).

Pointing out the rates are “pretty typical of what we see across the country,” Roberts explained, “If we look at mostly who we are losing, it really is middle age men, and so I think we have to create some focus on that as a community and look for ways to engage that particular demographic.”

However, said Roberts, death rates alone don’t illustrate the full impact.

“There certainly has been much, much chatter and conversation in this community about the number of deaths, but that is really on the tip of the iceberg in terms of who and what we see in terms of the devastation that’s connected to suicide.”

For every person who dies by suicide, between 25 and 40 individuals attempt to take their own life. In addition, for every person who dies, there are 15 to 30 people “whose lives are forever changed,” and a further 100 “who are distressed.”

The Here4Hope program has four areas of focus, the OPP’s “Postvention” program, the County of Wellington workplace wellness effort, local community work and the local and national Roots of Hope campaign. Specific actions will include a “Suicide is About Pain” awareness campaign, the Here4Hope event on Dec 3, a forum on the Role of Media in Suicide Prevention in early 2020 and messaging on dealing with holiday stress in December.

Roberts explained, “Postvention is what we do in the aftermath of a suicide” to assist individuals on the scene and provide continued support to friends, family and colleagues.

Postvention teams will include an OPP officer, a clinician and two peers with “lived experience of suicide.

“When I spoke to those people that had attempted or that had been bereaved by suicide that was the number one thing that they told us,  peers matter. People that have been there and have walked in my shoes, that’s who I need to connect with to help me with the aftermath,” said Roberts.

Creating the opportunity for more open dialogue on suicide is a key component of the program, said Roberts.

“We need to learn to intentionally notice people around us and we have to notice when they’re in pain and they’re distressed and we have to be prepared to have conversations with them. Not just, ‘Hi. How you doing?’ but, “Really, how are you doing?” and we have to have conversations with them about suicide and be prepared to connect them to formal resources.”

Roberts said Here4Hope will also fight for more money for increased services.

“We all know that we have a Cadillac system here, with Impact and OPP and CMHA, with the partnership that we have. Provincially many, many people are envious of it. But we don’t have any text crisis lines, we don’t have anywhere young people can text and that’s one thing that’s on my list and I’d love to see, in the next couple of years, us  bring that alive.”

Roberts added, “We need to be able to respond and support those that have been touched by suicide. There isn’t a community in this province that has a formalized Postvention program – and we’re just about ready to launch one.”

Warden Kelly Linton told Roberts the wholistic,  community-driven approach being taken “is just what this community needs.”

Councillor Doug Breen asked, “What can we do to be better at identifying our friends and our neighbours and our coworkers that are struggling.”

Roberts said that’s exactly what the SafeTalk program is designed for and she urged everyone around the horseshoe to take it.

“When someone is in that much pain – they are overwhelmed by that. They are embarrassed. They are afraid. And getting the words out can be very difficult. As a community we have to reach into that and, clearly, asking that question is not an easy thing to do.”

Roberts explained that SafeTalk teaches participants how to recognize red flags and invitations to talk and how to open dialogue and connect people with formal services.

Changing attitudes will play a big part in the program’s ultimate success, she noted.

“We have to be okay with not being okay. We all have days when we’re just not okay and we try so hard to pretend we’re okay. We really, as a society, have to get used to the fact that just some days things are overwhelming us. And when there’s space for that, and there’s safety for that, and it’s okay, then people show that to us more – and that will give us opportunities to help.”

“It’s really good to see this multi-pronged approach that you are taking,” commented councillor Diane Ballantyne.

“As a high school teacher in Centre Wellington, we’ve experienced some deeply tragic losses in our school community in the last couple of years and I’m happy to hear you say that you want to continue to fight for service increases because, despite the numbers and statistics that show it’s middle-aged men, some of the best investments we can make are in our youth and in particular our young men that are in our high schools … and we are struggling at the secondary school level to provide the amount of services that young people need for their increasing mental health struggles.”

Roberts agreed “many young people struggle with the onset of a mental illness or poor mental health without really realizing what is happening. In that demographic, suicide is the second leading cause of death, the first being accident. So there is much, much work that needs to be done there.”

Councillor Dave Anderson said he felt the partnership was taking the right approach.

“This is a community problem and the only way I think you can get it resolved is working together,” he said.