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Public Health and Suicide Fact Sheet

Suicide in Canada is an ongoing public health crisis. While it continues to be a high-ranking cause of death (which the COVID-19 pandemic may worsen), mental health and public health initiatives can help prevent it.

What is public health?
Public health is concerned with protecting and improving people’s health at the population level. Examples include the detection, prevention, and control of infectious disease as well as health promotion, health protection, and research into preventing disease and injuries (Rutty & Sullivan, 2010; CDC Foundation, 2021).

Defining levels of public health disease & injury

  1. Epidemic. The occurrence of more cases of disease, injury, or other health conditions than expected in a given area or among a specific group of persons during a particular period.
  2. Outbreak. The occurrence of more cases of disease, injury, or other health conditions than expected in a given area or among a specific group of persons during a specific period. Distinguished from an epidemic by being more localized or limited to a smaller geographical area.
  3. Pandemic. An epidemic occurring over a widespread area (multiple countries or continents) and usually affecting a substantial proportion of the population. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012).
  4. Public health emergency/crisis. An urgent or imminent temporary threat that seriously endangers the lives, health, and safety of a population. It generally requires a governing body to declare a state of public health emergency, which prompts action beyond normal procedures, to prevent or limit health consequences to the affected population (Canadian Medical Protective Association, 2020).

Suicide as a public health emergency
Suicide is a continuing societal crisis. Its prevention requires both mental health and public health approaches. Mental health approaches are specifically aimed toward individuals, whereas public health approaches concern an entire population and are most evident through the action of large organizations (e.g. governments, media outlets) (Cramer et al., 2017; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, n.d.).

Public health initiatives can effectively prevent suicide if they are multi-faceted; for example, initiatives that affect society, smaller communities, as well as individual people and their relationships. Initiatives that boost people’s resilience and protect them from thoughts of suicide may involve direct support (e.g. crisis lines, the construction of bridge barriers) and indirect support (e.g. housing programs) (Gunnell et al., 2020)

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