If you are in distress, you can call or text 988 at any time. If it is an emergency, call 9-1-1 or go to your local emergency department.

The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

Exploring the impact, resources, and strategies for suicide prevention

September is Suicide Awareness Month. It serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of mental health, offering an opportunity to educate, empathize, and advocate for those affected by suicide.

The scale of the issue
Suicide remains a significant public health concern in Canada, affecting individuals of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. According to Statistics Canada, about 4,500 people in our country die by suicide every year, which is around 12 people each day. And for every person lost to suicide, many more experience suicidal ideation or attempts. COVID-19 has also had a negative impact on mental health, including a significant increase in reports of suicidal ideation. Among young people (15-24), suicide is often reported to be in the top three leading causes of death, an incidence rate further magnified by its effects on families, individuals, and communities across the country (and worldwide).

The reasons for suicide are complex: they include biological, psychological, social, cultural, spiritual, economic, and other factors. According to a leading researcher in the field, the people who think about and attempt suicide are seeking to end deep and intense psychological pain. And yet, despite the complexities, there is reason for hope.

A combination of mental health and public health approaches can reduce Canada’s suicide rate and its impact. In this context, Suicide Awareness Month takes on a vital role in increasing public awareness of the issue and encouraging dialogue.

Addressing the issue
Several resources the MHCC supports or has helped create emphasize the importance of open and non-judgmental communication when discussing suicide. While initiating a conversation about suicide can be challenging, it’s a vital step in helping those who need support and assistance to seek it out.

Talking to Children About a Suicide is a conversation tool to help caregivers, parents, and guardians understand how to speak with children when a suicide happens in the community or if someone they know has died by suicide. Research has shown that talking about suicide does not increase a child’s risk of suicide; in fact, it can be a helpful experience.

Suicide: Facing the Difficult Topic Together is an online module designed to assist medical professionals in preparing for such conversations. Health-care providers play a pivotal role in preventing suicides in Canada. They’re often in the best position to identify those at risk of suicide and to provide or link them with the care they need.

These days, many of our interactions happen online. Recognizing this behaviour, the Australian organization Orygen developed #chatsafe guidelines for online conversations among young people, though the tools can also be helpful for all ages.

The Mindset: Reporting on Mental Health media guide is aimed at journalists, but it is useful to anyone writing about suicide or other sensitive issues. Central to its encouragement of safe and responsible reporting are the following recommendations:

  • respect for the privacy and grief of loved ones
  • including local helplines that readers can reach out to for support
  • representing suicide as preventable

The guide also discourages the romanticizing of suicide, characterizing it as a solution to an individual’s problems, detailing methods used, and publishing suicide notes.

Safe and responsible media reporting has long been a key element in national suicide prevention strategies. It figures prominently in the UN’s prevention of suicide guidelines, the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention’s blueprint, and WHO’s preventing suicide reports. Still, we often find problematic depictions in films and television shows, making these tools an important conversation starter to shift narratives.

Addressing stigma and misconceptions
A key component of Suicide Awareness Month is challenging the stigma and misconceptions around mental health and suicide. One of the issues the MHCC has highlighted for many years is the harmful impact of such stigma on individuals struggling with their mental health. Stigma can be a significant deterrent to individuals seeking help. It can also exacerbate their struggles and potentially lead to tragic outcomes.

By instead promoting understanding and empathy, we can create an environment where people feel safe and comfortable discussing their mental health challenges. This includes recognizing that seeking help is a sign of strength — not weakness — and that mental health is just as important as physical health.

Moira Farr wrote After Daniel: A Suicide Survivor’s Tale about the death of her partner. She is a journalist and instructor who researches and writes on a variety of topics for international and national publications, including The Catalyst. She noticed a change in the conversation since the publication of her book in 1999.

“I would say there has definitely been a shift in people’s willingness to openly discuss mental health issues, including suicide, in the past 20 years,” she says. “The campaigns to raise awareness about how and where to get help and to get people talking more honestly about their own mental health struggles seem to me to have been a positive force,” she says.

“Whether this has led to a decrease in the overall suicide rate in Canada, I imagine, is tricky to pinpoint. It can still be difficult to find the mental health resources you need – with greater awareness and willingness to seek help, the demands for mental health care have increased, with not necessarily enough to go around.” 

Wait times
While having mental health supports in place is important to suicide intervention, the Canadian Institute for Health Information pegs the national average wait time for community mental health counselling at 22 days.

Yet, provincial strategies to reduce wait times are offering promise. Prince Edward Island is emphasizing the need to increase access points for care, both inside and outside hospital settings. Reflecting on the province’s long waits for mental health services, it began looking to Newfoundland and Labrador, which recently reduced wait times by 67 per cent. P.E.I. is now following suit by also implementing Stepped Care 2.0, the model is used to provide more timely and holistic services through a range of methods such as telehealth, web-based services, and walk-in clinics.

Stepped Care 2.0 is organized around nine steps, including informational support, self-directed care, acute care, systems navigation, case management, and advocacy. To implement the model, service organizations select strategies in conjunction with client needs and preferences (e.g., e-mental health interventions, self-guided support, peer support, group programming, and in-person therapy) that align with the structure and number of steps available in each community.

Three digits
Another major support — the 988 suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline — will be implemented in November. People in need of immediate mental support will be able to call or text for help and be directed to a mental health crisis or suicide prevention service free of charge.

That idea has been under serious study in Canada for several years, with enthusiastic support among suicide prevention experts, mental health professionals, and political representatives at every level of government. Over the past few years, other countries like the Netherlands and the United States have also implemented a three-digit suicide prevention number.

Ways forward
In other developments, the Senate standing committee on social affairs, science and technology released a report in June titled Doing What Works: Rethinking the Federal Framework for Suicide Prevention and made a number of recommendations. These include:

  • recognizing the impact of substance use on suicide prevention in Canada and funding research into interventions
  • creating a nationwide database to better collect national data related to suicides, attempts, and effective prevention measures
  • replacing the concepts of “hope and resilience” in the framework with “meaning and connectedness”

This shift in language echoes other perspectives. For example, in many Indigenous communities, terms like life promotion or wellness are often used when discussing suicide prevention. The First Nations Mental Wellness Continuum Framework — developed by the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation with Indigenous and non-Indigenous partners (including Health Canada) — identifies hope, meaning, belonging, and purpose as underpinning many Indigenous ways of knowing. As the framework explains, aligning these four aspects in a person’s everyday life brings that person a feeling of wholeness that protects them and acts as a buffer against mental health risks and potential suicidal behaviours.

The importance of community and support
During Suicide Awareness Month, communities across Canada come together to offer support and resources to those affected by suicide. These efforts include awareness campaigns, educational events, and initiatives aimed at reducing stigma and fostering mental health support networks.

The MHCC’s resources emphasize the importance of building a strong and supportive community to help prevent suicide. By working together and fostering connections, we can create an environment where individuals in crisis feel valued and understood. Suicide Awareness Month in Canada serves as a reminder that we can all play a role in suicide prevention.

Wellness Together Canada crisis support: If you’re in distress, you can text WELLNESS to 741741 to connect with a mental health professional at any time. If it’s an emergency, call 911 or go to your local emergency department.

Assistance: People in Canada experiencing mental health distress can get assistance through Talk Suicide Canada by dialing toll-free 1-833-456-4566.

Course: Mental Health First Aid teaches you how to provide help to someone developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis or worsening mental health.

Resources: Suicide Prevention (Mental Health Commission of Canada)

Further reading: Three Easy Digits We’ll All Soon Know

Author: is the Manager of Content & Strategic Communications at the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Fateema Sayani is the manager of communications at the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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