Suicides in Alberta have increased by 30 per cent this year and mental health officials say that could only be a taste of what’s to come.
A drop in oil prices has caused thousand of layoffs across the province and Mara Grunau, who is the executive director of the Centre for Suicide Prevention, said the increase in suicides could be related to that.
“The suicide rate started climbing before the layoffs started, so it seems to me that if the suicide rate is going to go up because of unemployment, I think it’s still coming. I don’t think it’s hit yet,” Grunau told the Gazette last week.
“Research tells us that we will see an increase, so for every one per cent increase in unemployment we’ll have a corresponding 0.79 per cent increase in the suicide rate,” she said.
“But there’s typically a two-year delay where people kind of exhaust their own resources, because getting to the point of suicide is extreme. For most people it doesn’t happen overnight, it’s more of a long journey.”
Statistics show that from January to June in 2014, 252 Albertans took their own lives. In the same period this year there were 327.
Officials say on average there are 500 suicides in Alberta each year, but if the trend continues, there could be as many as 654 by the end of 2015.
Grunau said it could be too early to tell if the increase is directly related to the unemployment rate, since the most recent statistics are from June, but she did say there are people who have died by suicide after being laid off since the drop in oil prices.
“From an individual level, yes, it’s happening. From a whole population level, can we account for the huge change just from the unemployment? No, it’s more than that,” she said.
But officials haven’t seen this kind of increase in the suicide rate since the ’70s, she said.
“And that’s the part that’s really alarming.”
Alberta’s suicide rate is also higher than most Canadian provinces’, including Ontario’s, but it usually stays consistent, she said.
“And now all of a sudden we’re seeing a change, so that’s the biggest red flag,” she said.
“I mean it was bad already. Just to put it in context, more Albertans die by suicide every year than in fatal car collisions. Think about how often we hear traffic reports with fatalities. There are more suicides. That’s a lot.”
Three out of four people who die by suicide are men. She believes the suicide rate is higher in Alberta because there are so many “traditional macho male industries” like farming, ranching and oilfield jobs.
“And men are socialized to not ask for help. They’re socialized to man up and soldier on,” she said.
The Centre for Suicide Prevention is a branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association and was established in 1981. It is based out of Calgary and provides programs across the province.
Officials research and distribute educational information about suicide to Albertans through the use of social media, newspapers, workshops and toolkits.
Grunau said if people suspect someone is contemplating suicide they should ask them directly.
“It can be embarrassing and it makes us uncomfortable but you need to ask them directly,” she said.
“If they say yes, don’t panic. Your job is not to solve their problems – you can’t solve it anyway. Don’t try and solve it, just listen. Be non-judgmental and connect them to help.”
People who may be contemplating suicide or know someone who is are advised to call the 24-hour helpline at 403-266-HELP (4357) or 211.
“People who consider suicide don’t want to die. They’re in extreme pain and they want the pain to end and they’re at a point where they can’t see any other options,” she said.
“That’s why it’s important to help them, to reach out to them, because they’re looking for another option but they can’t find it.”
“Research tells us that we will see an increase, so for every one per cent increase in unemployment we’ll have a corresponding 0.79 per cent increase in the suicide rate.”Mara Grunau,Centre for Suicide Prevention