Celebrating the national launch of Roots of Hope

On September 5, at the Delta Hotel in downtown Ottawa, nearly 100 people gathered to celebrate the launch of Roots of Hope, the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s (MHCC’s) home-grown community suicide prevention project.

With leadership from the eight participating communities in attendance and the MHCC executive team on hand — including board chair Chuck Bruce — the event felt distinctly celebratory.

“This is a huge win,” said Bruce in his opening remarks. “Even when doors were closed to us, even when we heard ‘no’ ten times before we heard our first ‘yes,’ we knew as an organization that there is nothing more important than knitting communities together to prevent the devastation wrought by suicide.”

Speaking directly to that devastation, MHCC president and CEO Louise Bradley reflected on her motivation to get this project funded: the death of her closest friend by suicide.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as Bradley, voice wavering, recounted Mar-cha’s tragic death. “I still believe that if some small thing had happened to give her pause on that day, if someone had intervened with compassion and empathy, it could have changed her trajectory.” Now, says Bradley, her mission is to change the trajectories of others who might follow in Mar-cha’s footsteps.

Explaining that suicide isn’t an isolated event but rather a culmination of complex circumstances — from poverty and racism to substance misuse and, of course, mental illness — Bruce lauded the communities in attendance for bravely naming Canada’s hidden suicide crisis and earmarking funding to make change happen.

In sketching the project’s overview, principle investigator Dr. Brian Mishara laid bare what separates this project from a research perspective. He is particularly proud that the research component was an integral part of its construction. While many projects focus on what works, he explained, Roots of Hope is set apart by an intentional effort to address the contextual issues and challenges specific to each community — and by how the community rises to meet them.

The example he gives is as poignant as it is powerful. He talks about psychologists descending on Rwanda following the country’s horrific genocide, seeking to provide trauma-informed care to people who experienced unfathomable atrocities. These efforts, though based in evidence, were falling on deaf ears. Their work was having precisely the opposite effect to what they intended. The reason was astonishingly simple had anyone listened. The Rwandan people said they needed three things to heal: their family around them, the open air and sunshine, and the opportunity to share happy memories. Instead, they were being separated from loved ones, brought to a darkened room, and asked to relive their trauma.

Roots of Hope, in its wisdom, doesn’t seek to presume the appropriate solutions but rather relies on the strengths and specifics of local communities to fill in the blanks around its five pillars of prevention.

The morning community panel at the launch was a testament to the different areas of focus for each community. For example, in New Brunswick, health department coordinator Céline Fortin explained that their focus is on training family doctors — given that 70 per cent of the people who take their own lives visit their physician three to eight months prior to a suicide attempt. In other words, the community has decided that giving doctors additional training to identify people who are currently slipping through the cracks could save lives.

In Edmonton, as regional Canadian Mental Health Association executive director Ione Challborn explained, concerned citizens called on the city to restrict means on a bridge that had become a hot spot for suicide. While this happened in 2014, long before the implementation of Roots of Hope, it was a catalyst that would spark future action.

“Now, we’re really part of a movement,” Challborn enthused. “We’re learning from one another.”

It’s this capacity to learn from each other that excites Mishara. With communities of practice, face-to-face meetings, and online tools, researchers from each community can share ideas and exchange information, pooling their knowledge and growing the body of work around how to prevent suicide.

“I could not be prouder of my team,” said Ed Mantler, MHCC vice-president of programs and priorities. “They have worked so hard, not just on today’s launch but to get these eight disparate communities to work hand-in-glove with the MHCC on this game-changing project.”

With the ink dry on their formal participation just a day before the event in Ottawa, Nunavut is the most recent region to sign on. “I want it on the record how tremendously proud and pleased we are to be a part of this,” said Victoria Madsen, the territory’s director of mental health and addiction. “Yes, we have a high suicide rate in Nunavut, and we know this. But we are doing wonderful work to help address it, and signing on to Roots of Hope is another example of how we’re going to make progress.”

The launch itself was carefully orchestrated, with MHCC staff sitting at dedicated provincial tables, learning first-hand about the communities involved — from regions as far apart as Meadow Lake, Sask., and Burin Peninsula, N.L. Also present was RADAR (recovery advocacy documentary action research), a group of filmmakers, academics, and people with lived experience of mental illness, documenting the day in the hopes of getting the word out about best practices in community-based suicide prevention.

And while the event’s atmosphere remained one of quiet jubilation, as partner communities and MHCC leadership savoured the hard-won success of creating the country’s first ever pan-Canadian community suicide prevention initiative, Bradley’s closing remarks summed up the day.

Drying her eyes and clearing her throat, after struggling to keep her emotions in check as she finished speaking about her own experience as a suicide loss survivor, she looked pointedly around the room and left guests with a powerful reminder.

“This is a battle that’s going to be won by inches,” Bradley said. “And we’re going to have to be patient because it’s not going to happen overnight. But this is the most important thing any of us will ever do.”

Everyone in the room nodded in agreement, the resolve to save lives as palpable as the memories of loved ones lost to suicide.