Evidence of meeting #33 for Health in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was suicide.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • Dammy Damstrom-Albach  President, Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention
  • Jennifer Fodden  Executive Director, Lesbian Gay Bi Trans Youth Line
  • Denise Batters  As an Individual
  • Brian Mishara  Director, Centre for Research and Intervention on Suicide and Euthanasia, Université du Québec à Montréal, As an Individual
  • Marnin Heisel  Associate Professor and Research Scientist, Department of Psychiatry and Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University of Western Ontario
  • Clerk of the Committee  Mrs. Mariane Beaudin

8:45 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Joy Smith

Ladies and gentlemen, I ask you to please take your seats. We're right on time, but we have a lot of very important information to go through today.

I'm going to introduce to you, from the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Ms. Dammy Damstrom-Albach. She is the president. Welcome.

We have Ms. Jennifer Fodden. She is from the Lesbian Gay Bi Trans Youth Line. Welcome.

From the University of Western Ontario, we have Dr. Marnin Heisel, associate professor and research scientist, Department of Psychiatry. He is running late. His plane will be landing shortly, so he'll be joining us in a little while.

As an individual, we have Dr. Brian Mishara, director of the Centre for Research and Intervention on Suicide and Euthanasia. Welcome.

And I want to welcome a very good friend of ours, Ms. Denise Batters, the wife of Dave Batters, one of our members who was with us a few years ago.

We are going to begin with Ms. Dammy Damstrom-Albach, please.

March 8th, 2012 / 8:45 a.m.

Dammy Damstrom-Albach President, Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention

Good morning, and thank you very much for allowing me to address the committee.

As you are by now well aware, as many as 10 Canadians die each day by suicide, and these mostly preventable deaths devastate the lives of so many others. On that basis alone, our government should play a significant role in suicide prevention. However, this role and the government's response to suicide must be in keeping not only with the seriousness but also with the breadth and the complexities of this issue.

This requires an approach that is authentic, multi-faceted, and nuanced, an approach specific to suicide prevention, intervention, and “postvention”, which of necessity focuses particular attention and action beyond simple inclusion in a broader initiative. Positive outcomes demonstrating our government's true commitment to suicide prevention depend upon specific, comprehensive, and concrete action, and eventually upon appropriate funding as well. While we understand funding for suicide prevention is not part of today's discussion and cannot be tied to a private member's bill, we all appreciate that it must at some point enter in.

Bill C-300 is a first step. Because of this bill, as well as that tabled by Megan Leslie and the recent motion put forward by Bob Rae, Parliament at last has broken its silence on suicide to join in a national conversation. We are very grateful for that.

However, I believe we owe it to Canadians to figure out what it will take to do this right. We must use this bill as a compass to chart our best direction, not take half measures. We know parliamentarians of every stripe are deeply concerned, and many have been personally touched by suicide in some way, as we saw last October when so many spoke of the tragedy of suicide and the need for bold action.

We are told that for every suicide death, there are at least 10 close others whose lives are profoundly impacted. That is 100 Canadians every day. Think about what that means over a decade. Many of these survivors suffer in silence and may themselves become vulnerable to suicide, particularly without compassionate and knowledgeable care and support.

Yet suicides are for the most part preventable. There are solutions, though they are rarely quick or simple. Suicide prevention in Canada is fragmented. The work began with dedicated individuals and small organizations scattered all across the country, and this remains reflected in our current state. There is no national vision unifying our efforts and few mechanisms that allow us to learn from and build on our knowledge and experience. At times, knowledge is confined to special interest or otherwise privileged groups and not easily accessible or transferable to grassroots organizations, front-line workers, and survivors.

When it comes to suicide prevention in Canada, the right hand often does not know what the left hand is doing, even though there are investments being made and great things being done in pockets all across the country. Because of this, good investments can fail to have broad impact, and their usefulness is then diminished.

Indeed, our government has made some focused investments in suicide prevention, but there is no structure to facilitate benefits spreading to all the places where they could be useful. A case in point is the recent announcement by the federal Minister of Health regarding a $300,000 grant to research best practices. This decision was made with the very best of intentions. However, in the absence of a framework and coordinating body, the government was unaware that similar exercises had taken place in other countries and that in 2003 the Canadian Institutes of Health Research had commissioned Dr. Jennifer White to undertake a Canadian suicide research review. This report identified substantial Canadian contributions to the suicide knowledge base and identified important research gaps. Hopefully, the upcoming research will build on Dr. White's 2003 report. In fact, an update of this report, with the addition of the global picture from similar recent reviews, would likely have been more sensible, along with funds directed to addressing some of the gaps already identified.

The assumption that simply making gathered knowledge available means that it will be swiftly put into action ignores the transitional steps needed to turn evidence-based knowledge into useful, practical application. Furthermore, the rapid gathering of this information could have been done in a few weeks by a simple request to SIEC, the Suicide Information and Education Centre, and to Crise to provide the latest material compiled across the globe.

We may well be spending $300,000 to reinvent the wheel. The government cannot be faulted, because there is no structure or appointed body to inform such decisions, nor is there any such structure to ensure that stakeholders across Canada have equal access to gathered information and the capacity to translate it into policy, implement it in practice, and then evaluate the outcome and feed the results back to others who need to learn from them.

This is where the federal government comes in. It is not a small role that the government must assume. It must function as both catalyst and glue to stimulate and cement the needed connections. Suicide prevention requires all levels of government to unite in support of the community groups, survivors, those with lived experience, and the thousands of volunteers who have long done the lion's share of this work. The national government must step forward to do its portion.

The federal government can also address fragmentation by honouring the 1996 UN guidelines on suicide prevention. Surely Canada's approach must be consistent with these guidelines, which clearly state that the litmus test of a country's commitment to suicide prevention is the appointing of a national coordinating body to promote collaboration and collective action and regularly report on progress.

Let us take full advantage of the wonderful opportunity we've been given thanks to the non-partisan leadership of people like Harold Albrecht, Megan Leslie, and Bob Rae. Bill C-300 is a good beginning. However, we need to extend our reach to be sure we do all that we can do for those Canadians whose lives have been or may be touched by suicide. Bill C-300 recognizes that suicide is a public health priority; however, it places most of its emphasis on knowledge exchange.

While this is one essential element of a comprehensive approach, knowledge exchange cannot stand alone. At a minimum, we must also consider establishing a national implementation support team to advance a comprehensive federal, provincial, territorial, public, and private response to suicide prevention. We must develop policies aimed at reducing access to lethal means. We must create guidelines and action initiatives to improve public awareness, knowledge, education, and training about suicide. And we must support an enhanced information system to disseminate information about suicide and suicide prevention.

8:55 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Joy Smith

I have to ask you to wrap up because you're over your time.

8:55 a.m.

President, Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention

Dammy Damstrom-Albach

Clearly, all of the things that CASP is hoping for will require funding, sufficient funds to transform our compassion into action. Our action must be guided by research evidence, practice, and lived experience, and it must be informed by current Canadian data about suicide rates, trends, and risks.

8:55 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Joy Smith

Thank you. I'm sorry.

We'll have to go now to Ms. Jennifer Fodden.

8:55 a.m.

Jennifer Fodden Executive Director, Lesbian Gay Bi Trans Youth Line

Thank you to the members of the Standing Committee on Health for inviting me to provide testimony this morning.

I appreciate the opportunity to highlight for the committee the particular perspective of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, and two-spirit people, which I will hereafter refer to as LGBT for brevity's sake, and our community's relationship with the ideas being discussed today, suicide and suicide prevention.

There are many factors that contribute to a person's risk of suicide ideation and attempts, and while many of these are individual factors, there are also special populations of people that research and experience have shown to be more likely to contemplate, to attempt, and, sadly, to succeed at taking their own lives.

First nations and Inuit peoples and LGBT people represent two of the communities at greatly disproportionate risk relative to the general population. I urge the committee to seek to understand the unique and important factors that affect first nations and Inuit peoples at your next session. Today, I will attempt to present to you the sad reality of the impact of suicide on my community of LGBT people.

I'll begin with a bit of background about myself. I have a master's degree in counselling psychology and I have worked in child and adolescent mental health for 12 years. I'm the executive director of the Lesbian Gay Bi Trans Youth Line. We provide peer support services to youth aged 26 and under throughout the province of Ontario. We serve approximately 6,000 youth each year, providing online and telephone listening, support, information and access to local resources whenever possible. Our services are provided by highly trained youth volunteers who themselves identify as members of the LGBT community.

We do not provide crisis services per se, but the work we do is suicide prevention work at its heart. We provide relief from isolation and we provide acceptance and non-judgmental listening. We provide access to community. Even if it's communicated just by a voice on the phone or an online chat window, it offers a glimpse of hope that can have a significant impact on those who are reaching out.

I want to emphasize for you today the profound ways that the LGBT community is affected by suicide. I have drawn from a number of reliable and peer-reviewed research resources for this presentation today. I will happily share these with the clerk's office if the committee would like access to them after today's meeting.

I'll not overwhelm you with statistics, but I will put before you some of the most stark and revealing numbers. Meta-analysis studies have found that sexual minority individuals were two and a half times more likely than heterosexuals to have attempted suicide. A recent Canadian study estimated that the risk of suicide among LGB youth is 14 times higher than for their heterosexual peers. A large and statistically representative study of trans people in Ontario found that 77% had seriously considered suicide and 45% had attempted suicide. Trans youth were found to be at greatest risk of suicide, as were those who had experienced physical or sexual assault.

What can explain these staggering figures? I want to impress upon the committee that it is not the fact of being lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or two-spirit that imposes these risks upon a person's psychological well-being. Rather, it is being a member of a group that experiences oppression, exclusion, omission, and hate that leads to this sad reality.

LGBT people experience stigma and discrimination, and this stigma can have a variety of negative consequences throughout their life span. LGBT people are also targets of sexual and physical assault, harassment, and hate crimes. These pressures, as well as the stress of sometimes concealing one's orientation or modifying behaviour or appearance in anticipation of homophobia and violence, have a negative effect on mental and physical health. Family rejection in adolescence has been linked to increased substance use, depression, and attempted suicide.

Trans people experience even more significant social marginalization in our society. For many who cannot pass as cisgender, or non-trans, the added visibility leaves them more susceptible to harassment and abuse. The cumulative impact of erasure, pathologization, and exclusion leave trans people, and trans youth in particular, vulnerable to suicide. That is what research has been able to demonstrate.

But not all of this is a surprise to those of us in this room. In recent months and years, there have been many stories that have captured the attention of our country's media and viewers at home. There have been stories of young lives ended, just when they ought to be getting started. We have heard tell of homophobic bullying and tormenting that has taken place in schools and online among university students and pre-teens. We have seen video clips filmed by bright and talented young people full of spark whose will to go on has been broken.

As a community, we grieve each of these losses deeply and sincerely. We know that for every one of these LGBT lives lost, there are many more whose stories won't be told because they've taken their secret pain to the grave.

At the Lesbian Gay Bi Trans Youth Line it is not uncommon for our callers to speak about times they had attempted but somehow, thankfully, fallen short of succeeding and ending their lives, and more common still to hear contemplations. Ending it all can seem a very real option to far too many of our kids.

This all sounds very bleak, and indeed it paints a picture of communities in crisis. It is stories like these that have brought us all here today to undertake the important work of making suicide prevention a priority for all, a matter of public health and safety.

The bill before the committee proposes many helpful elements, and I congratulate the authors on some of the following elements in particular. Paragraph 1 of the preamble specifically outlines that suicide “can be influenced by societal attitudes and conditions”, which is the very essence of what I am presenting to you today.

I put to you that you should consider naming the societal attitudes that you refer to in this paragraph more directly: homophobia, transphobia, and racism. Alternatively, naming the communities and populations that are known to be disproportionately affected by this issue could strengthen the impact of this bill.

I offer strong support for paragraphs 3 and 4 of the preamble, particularly the naming of communities as agents of action in both the prevention of suicide and after care of survivors impacted by suicide.

I stand firmly behind the use of knowledge transfer and exchange as mechanisms for change in our public attitude toward suicide, and I urge the government to utilize the research and resources that are available from sources such as Rainbow Health Ontario and Trans PULSE to inform the tools and resources that this bill will stimulate so that the concerns and realities of LGBT individuals and communities are made visible to the general population.

Finally, I urge the committee to look not only to research bodies but also to communities as sources of valuable information, healing, and prevention. Building communities of, with, and for our most vulnerable people can provide the safety net that will ensure LGBT individuals do not become statistics.

Thank you.

9 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Joy Smith

Right on time. How did you ever do that? Thank you so very much.

Now we'll go to Denise Batters.

Denise, is your video ready to go now? Okay.

All the members do have transcripts. We will begin, then.

[Video Presentation]

9:05 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Joy Smith

Thank you for coming today. It's going to help a lot of people.

9:05 a.m.

Denise Batters As an Individual

Thank you. It's wonderful to be here.

Good morning, Madam Chair and committee members. I'm so honoured to be here today.

That news story played last month throughout Saskatchewan on Bell's “Let's Talk Day”. You saw a quick synopsis of why I find myself here today, but here is a little more of my story.

My husband, Dave Batters, and I first met in 1989, in Saskatoon, crossing the street at a political convention. Dave was first elected as the federal member of Parliament for Palliser in June 2004, and he was re-elected in 2006. In fact, Dave was a member of this very committee in his second term in office.

In 2008 Dave became quite ill with severe anxiety and depression. He also overcame a dependency on his prescription medication used to reduce his anxiety and help him sleep.

Shortly before the federal election was called in September 2008, Dave announced he would not run for re-election. He publicly announced why, disclosing the battle he had been waging.

In his words, taken from his press release, he said:

I make this very personal disclosure with the hope that others who suffer from these conditions will seek the assistance they need. There is still a stigma attached to such illnesses and I want to make sure people realize these are conditions that can strike anyone and need to be treated.

Tragically, Dave took his own life on June 29, 2009. Taking a cue from his openness about his illness, we issued a press release disclosing that, sadly, Dave had died by suicide.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper attended Dave's funeral and gave a very important speech. He not only described some of Dave's great personal qualities that made him a valued friend and colleague in the caucus, but he also talked about depression and suicide. One of the most fitting lines of this speech was this:

Depression can strike the sturdiest of souls. It cares not how much you have achieved or how much you have to live for.

In 2010 we held a golf tournament in Dave's memory. I wanted to have the money raised go to a cause that might help someone like Dave. I wanted to produce a TV commercial that targets men between 30 and 50 years old suffering from anxiety and depression. Our golf tournament raised $20,000, and we produced that TV commercial, which ran in Saskatchewan for many weeks. This 30-second ad is still available on YouTube; just search “Dave Batters”. Please view it there and post the link on your Facebook and Twitter pages. I would love to get the number of hits up on this very important message of awareness.

In the Prime Minister's video message sent to our golf tournament, he said:

By publicly revealing his struggle with anxiety and depression, Dave reminded everyone who suffers from mental illness that they are not alone. This is a message that needs to be heard, not just by victims of mental illness, but by everyone, to deepen the well of understanding and support for those battling this disease. This is Dave Batters' legacy.

Many men suffering with severe anxiety and depression think they are alone in their suffering. They think no one else could possibly have felt like this before. We must let them know they are not alone.

Also, many of these people feel they are a huge burden to everyone, and everyone would be better off without them. That is why so many of them resort to this final choice. They need to know their family and friends want to help and don't consider them to be a burden. For those of us now without those loved ones in our lives, we would do anything we could to have them back with us.

Soon after Dave died in June 2009, my counsellor warned me not to get involved with a cause too soon. He knew invitations to get involved would come early and often for me, given my openness about Dave's suicide. That was good advice. But in 2010, when Dave's friends approached me about the golf tournament, the time seemed right for a cause.

I think my difficult journey has been assisted because I was open that Dave had died by suicide. So many people feel that the stigmatized nature of suicide prevents them from discussing the death of their loved one. Some deny the cause of death, or even lie about it. Everyone goes through their own grieving process, and with suicide there are so many difficult and conflicting emotions involved for the bereaved.

I want to talk about Dave, particularly with people who knew him and loved him. I have had many people say to me, “I wasn't sure if I should mention Dave to you, because I thought that might be painful for you.” However, there is nothing that brightens my day more than hearing a new story about Dave. He was such a funny, friendly person. He deserves to be remembered often for all of those great qualities.

Madam Chair and committee members, from my personal perspective, when I look at Mr. Albrecht's bill, these are the two most important aspects of it: the stated goal for increased public awareness and knowledge about suicide, and the federal framework that promotes consultations and collaboration on this urgent health issue all across Canada.

There are many outstanding groups doing good work in pockets across the country. There's a great need for better coordination of these efforts. I believe this will help to give the most important thing of all: hope to Canadians like Dave.

Thank you very much.

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Joy Smith

Thank you very much, Denise.

Dr. Mishara, thank you for joining us. Please give us your presentation. You have seven minutes.

9:10 a.m.

Prof. Brian Mishara Director, Centre for Research and Intervention on Suicide and Euthanasia, Université du Québec à Montréal, As an Individual

I'm going to speak in French, if that is all right.

In 1987, the report of the National Task Force on Suicide in Canada provided in its conclusion a series of 40 specific recommendations to prevent suicide in Canada. I was part of the group of experts tasked with revising and updating that first report from the group of experts. Health Canada issued that new version in 1994. Seven years later, we could only reiterate the same 40 recommendations because nothing had been done. Since then, none of the 40 recommendations have been implemented.

Today, close to 30 countries have a national suicide prevention strategy, and the WHO recommends that all countries develop one.

I'm a researcher. Research shows that national strategies have an impact on suicide. For example, a study published in 2011 in Social Science and Medicine focused on the suicide rate in 21 countries between 1980 and 2004. In those 25 years, the suicide rate dropped each year by 1,384 out of 100,000 residents, or by 6.6% a year. According to the study, if Canada, with a population of 34 million, had a national strategy like that of other countries, the number of deaths by suicide would decrease by 476. If we consider the financial impact of health and mental health care and the psychological and emotional impact of deaths by suicide, the possibility of saving 476 lives a year may justify major investments in suicide prevention.

Bill C-300 is a good start and indicates that Canada wants to be among a growing number of countries that have invested in a national suicide prevention program. A number of Canadian provinces have already made great strides. In 1998, Quebec created the Stratégie québécoise d'action face au suicide. Between 1998 and 2008, there was a decrease in the suicide rate for all age groups. The rate for youths in Quebec dropped by half compared with 1998.

Certainly, the provinces have a responsibility when it comes to health and mental health. Suicide prevention is part of that. But significant steps at the federal level can contribute considerably to decreasing the suicide rate in Canada. Think about the medication that causes the most deaths by suicide: it's acetaminophen, Tylenol, which is available over the counter in large quantities. In England and in a number of other European countries, a simple regulation aimed at controlling the quantity of pills in a single container that a person can purchase resulted in a lower number of poisonings, whether intentional or unintentional, caused by this medication. The fact that fewer dangerous medications are available at home has reduced the risk for suicidal individuals. This kind of policy doesn't cost the government anything and offers an increased probability of saving lives.

Other examples of possible actions that can be taken at the federal level include media awareness, particularly on the impact their reports have on suicide. This impact has been very well documented through a significant body of research. Encouraging early intervention to promote mental health in young people is another example.

The spirit of Bill C-300 is commendable, but the repercussions of this kind of legislation will be determined by the resources available to implement it and how the authorities, which are called relevant entities within the Government of Canada, will invest competent resources to carry out the tasks set out in the legislation.

This bill is very different from the national suicide prevention strategies elsewhere in the world that have had a considerable impact on the suicide rate. The national strategies that have been successful have not given an existing entity the mandate of dealing with suicide prevention; instead, they have created a governmental or paragovernmental organization responsible for the strategy.

Those entities had sufficient funding to interact with the provincial, governmental and non-governmental authorities to develop a concerted action on suicide prevention. However, all the strategies that have been successful received good funding from governments for pilot projects, monitoring and various activities.

Without specific funding allocated to suicide prevention, Bill C-300 risks having the same impact as the report entitled Suicide in Canada and the updated report. It was a lot of fine words, but the federal government has taken almost no action in terms of suicide prevention.

Canada has an enormous amount of suicide prevention resources. We are exporters of knowledge in this area. Our research is often used elsewhere. We can learn from the success and experiences at the provincial and local level, but the federal government also has a role to play, as I have already mentioned. I'll repeat that the government just wasted $300,000 to draft existing documents, which have been written recently elsewhere in the world. Lack of coordination seems to be a common occurrence.

Instead of palming the mandate off on a relevant entity within the Government of Canada, I recommend that the bill be amended to create a governmental authority that would be responsible for implementing the legislation. I also recommend adding that this entity make recommendations on changes to Canada's legislation, policies and practices to encourage a decrease in suicide.

Furthermore, I find that the timeframe suggested, which provides for an initial report in four years, must be replaced and that an annual report should be requested. I know that it takes time to establish a strategy. However, other countries in the world have generally taken one or two years to create a national strategy that has involved thousands of stakeholders, given the small amount—

9:20 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Joy Smith

I'm sorry, sir, you're over time and I have to ask you to wrap up. Thank you.

9:20 a.m.

Director, Centre for Research and Intervention on Suicide and Euthanasia, Université du Québec à Montréal, As an Individual

Prof. Brian Mishara

I don't see any reason why we can't start implementing this legislation in Canada in under two years.

9:20 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Joy Smith

Thank you so very much.

Now we'll go to our seven-minute Qs and As, and we'll begin with Ms. Davies.

9:20 a.m.

NDP

Libby Davies Vancouver East, BC

Thank you, Chairperson, and my thanks to all the witnesses for being here today.

This is our second meeting on this important issue, and I think we all feel compelled from the testimony we've heard to take much stronger action.

Ms. Batters, thank you for coming and for being so courageous in sharing the experience you went through. I know it's not easy to speak out. I think there is a notion out there that MPs live in this other world, and that we're not connected. For you to be able to explain what happened to Dave and describe how we all suffer from the same ailments, conditions, and mental health issues as the general population helps to connect us with our community and our broader society. I want to thank you for how forthright you've been.

A couple of questions come to mind. To you, Mrs. Batters, who have dealt with this issue publicly, I wonder if you could say a little more about what you think is the immediate first step. We're aware of the stigma. We're aware of how hard it is sometimes for people to come forward to seek the help they need. From what you've learned in working with people, how do you see that important first step? How can we reinforce that in our local communities?

I'll also add another question about whether we need a new national coordinating body. Ms. Albach, you spoke about the UN guidelines and the need for a national coordinating body. I'm curious to know how that works with the Mental Health Commission. We do have the Canadian Mental Health Commission. We hear they're coming out with a strategy in a few months. How do these two things fit together? Do we need a separate entity in Canada that will undertake this, or is this something that's part of the commission's coordination and works?

Those are my two questions. I'd like to begin with Mrs. Batters.