Last week I attended a consultation, at the invitation of our MP, Larry Miller, to discuss mental health issues, especially suicide, with an emphasis on youth.
I was one of about forty people asked to share our thoughts around this delicate subject.
It wasn’t easy.
We started by talking about all the good things we are doing in Grey-Bruce; the services which are available and the work that is being done on a shoestring. We do our best here, often cobbling together programs based on crossing traditional boundaries, pooling resources and simply making it work for us. We do it because we have had to. Some of our efforts are seen by the Ministry of Health as exemplars of how services should be delivered.
But the meeting was stopped cold by OPP Inspector Scott Stewart, who pointed out that while youth suicide is deeply tragic, behind much of the suicides in Grey-Bruce is one thing. Poverty. And until we start addressing poverty issues, he said, people will continue to sink into despair and into the black hole of depression and commit suicide.
Inspector Stewart pointed out that men over fifty in Grey - Bruce often find themselves unable to provide for their family and with no job, limited social assistance, poor transportation and other complications.
I think he is right. There are many groups at risk in our community; men, women, seniors and especially gay, lesbian and transgender youth. Suicide is often seen as the only way out.
What is even more tragic, as we have seen elsewhere in this province, is a parent committing suicide and killing members of their family, usually their children, at the same time.
From my perspective, there are three areas which need emphasis and support from our government, both provincially and federally.
The first area is training and recruitment.
I have served on the governing board of one of our local mental health agencies. I can not count the times the Executive Director reported to us that there were no qualified applicants or simply no applicants at all for advertised positions.
We are facing the retirement of a generation of skilled clinicians; mental health nurses, social workers and others. Unless our government financially supports and encourages professional training, we will be in serious difficulty.
The second area of concern is child and youth psychiatric services in Grey-Bruce.
We have no child psychiatrist in our area. The nearest centre providing intensive psychiatric care for children and youth is in London. We desperately need additional and high level mental health services for children and youth in this community.
We also need physicians who are well trained in mental health issues, both to follow the complex cases in the community but also to diagnose and treat people with mental health conditions effectively.
The third area of concern is our First Nations community.
The speaker from the First Nations community at the meeting reminded us all of the impact of residential schools on the First Nations, going back generations. The legacy will continue for generations more. Rates of suicide among the First Nations population in Canada, and especially among aboriginal youth, are such that it fits the definition of an epidemic.
Apologizing for the residential schools, as the federal government of Mr. Harper has done, is not the end, but is the first small step in the beginning of a multi-generational journey with our First Nations peoples.
I was surprised to hear Mr. Miller’s lack of familiarity with the impact of residential schools, but to his credit he was open to hearing more and coming to some understanding. I hope that those with much more experience than I will take him up on the invitation to further conversation.
The discussion last week was deep and intense. Young people who were present took risks and shared their experiences and feelings around mental health, depression and suicide. Parents shared their frustration with the health care system and what it was like to be shunted around, not finding any answers, even after death.
There is more we can and need to do as a community. It won’t be an easy, quick fix. But taking mental health seriously and putting pressure on our governments to help us all is a good first step.
Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.