Speaking Notes for
President and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada
National Launch of Roots of Hope
September 5, 2019
Good morning everyone.
Thank you, Chuck, for that lovely welcome.
You know, our Board Chair is quite right. We sure did have to knock on a lot of doors to get funders for Roots of Hope.
And, with the few minutes I have, I’d like to talk a little bit about why that is.
Why is it that suicide gets so little in the way of resourcing?
We know 90 percent of people who take their own lives are battling a mental illness.
Globally, more years are lost to the maw of depression than any other disability – yet the disease garners two-thirds less funding than cancer.
Why is it that a crisis taking the lives of 11 people every day in Canada, isn’t receiving proportionate attention? And I want to stress something here: it’s something that keeps me up at night.
Suicides are so significantly underreported that the truth is, we don’t even really know how many people take their own lives.
This all boils down to one nasty word: stigma.
And, quite frankly, that’s a word I’m sick and tired of hearing. Because it’s a tiny little word, and it’s so inadequate, really, to describe the feelings, the experiences, of so many people in desperate need of help, but without the systems and structures in place to break their fall.
We don’t routinely screen for suicide, and when we do, it’s often done badly, clumsily, with an accusatory bent.
“You aren’t thinking of killing yourself, are you?”
Talk about a leading question.
What we need to do, as a society, as communities, as a country, is understand suicide as a symptom of a major illness.
Suicide isn’t a solution. It’s not an inevitable outcome.
Suicidal thoughts are a warning sign that someone is very, very unwell. And what that person needs isn’t judgment, piled on top of his or her own feelings of guilt or worthlessness.
What they need is compassion.
What they need is a safe place to confide.
What they need are doctors and nurses unafraid to broach the topic with sensitivity.
What they need is to live in a community where means to suicide are restricted. This is so important because we all know that while thoughts of suicide can persist, the act itself is often spontaneous. If you can keep a person contemplating suicide alive one more day, it may be just enough time for another solution to present itself.
I lost my best friend to suicide.
I am one of those 25 people we speak about so often – a person who has been branded by the specific kind of devastation wrought by a suicide loss.
In my heart, I believe Mar-cha’s death was preventable. I believe, with the right combination of treatments and supports, all suicides should be preventable.
But let me be clear. Until we make serious strides on a myriad of fronts, that doesn’t mean they will be.
Treatment for serious mental illness isn’t perfect – far from it. Brain science is like deep space. There’s so much we simply don’t know. And until we know causes, treatments are, sadly, far too hit-and-miss.
And the system in which we are working is so very, very flawed. What treatment there is – psychotropic drugs and psychotherapy, for example – fall outside the publically funded “universal system.”
That’s why, far too often, hospitals are the pricy, ineffective fall back for people who’ve become so ill other options are no longer viable. To cheap out on prevention is a false economy, because we’re hemorrhaging unnecessary dollars on crisis care.
But that doesn’t mean people like Mar-cha should have been without hope.
It’s incremental, but we are learning a little bit more about mental illness every day. And we’re talking about suicide more than we ever have. And we’re getting closer to a system of care that doesn’t discount treatment for the mind – the body’s most complex and important organ.
To this day, I believe that one small intervention could have prevented Mar-Cha from taking her own life that day – and that might have been enough to alter her trajectory.
I mean it when I say, compassionately asking someone who appears to be suffering, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” and then listening to their answer with an empathic, open heart, can be life saving.
Roots of Hope is going to bring that kind of empathy and compassion to communities. It’s going to raise awareness of suicidal ideation as a symptom of a legitimate and treatable disease.
Roots of Hope is going to actively teach community leaders and people with influence – teachers, coaches, social workers, health care office workers – how to recognize those symptoms and appropriately intervene.
Single session walk-in counseling sessions are going to open the door on difficult conversations, allowing people to unburden themselves without fear of recrimination.
Roots of Hope is going to knit communities together. I truly believe this. It’s going to shine a light in corners that have been dark for far too long.
And it’s going to foster the understanding that wanting to die because of escalating mental illness is no more shameful, or no less real, than battling a life threatening cancer.
Mar-cha’s death certificate said she died of a heart attack. The legitimate cause of her death – a depression so acute, so suffocating, she saw no way out – was negated by a stroke of the pen.
The only thing I can do now – to honour her memory, and to assuage the guilt so common among survivors of suicide loss – is devote my energy to changing as many trajectories as I can.
This is a battle that’s going to be won by inches. And we’re going to have to be patient, because it’s not going to happen overnight. And it’s going to be won by all of us. We’re going to have to work together.
And it’s going to be the most important thing we ever do.