By Nina Badwal
– September 2021 –
Suicide intervention is one of the emerging priorities in St. James Town according to the St. James Town Service Providers’ Network (SJTSPN). The SJTSPN is a group of agencies that promotes equitable social and economic development initiatives and provides informal economic opportunities and population specific services.
“Over the last two years now we’ve been re-defining the idea of crisis and crisis response in St. James Town to the point where we’ve been developing a neighbourhood wide crisis response protocol,” says Robb Johannes, co-chair of the SJTSPN and Health Promotion Specialist at Fred Victor. “So in the case of death by suicide, that’s a community trauma. That’s not just something that happens with one individual. It’s now scientifically been measured that one death by suicide affects over a hundred people.”
In Canada, approximately 11 people die by suicide each day which translates into about 4,000 deaths by suicide each year, as stated on the Government of Canada website. The site also reports that 1/3 of those deaths are among people 45 to 59 years old and suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people aged 15 to 34 years old. Suicide rates are about 3 times higher among men compared to women. The website notes, “Published data underestimate the total number of deaths by suicide, due, in part, to the stigma of suicide and other factors that may lead family members, health professionals, coroners, and others to avoid labeling or reporting deaths as suicides.”
“We have seen great increases in social isolation which is a huge factor and just the amount of disconnection that’s been happening,” says Johannes who is a co-author of a new book titled, What It Takes To Make It Through: Stories of Suicide Resilience & Loss. “St. James Town is already a neighbourhood that experiences greater amounts of EMS [Emergency Medical Services] calls than most neighbourhoods in the city of Toronto. And there’s always that question of who are we not reaching. And that’s really a big factor when it comes to suicide.”
Johannes says one of the reasons he contributed to the book was to help break down the stigma around suicide which he says people tend to associate “with things going wrong.” He talks about his own personal experience with thoughts of suicide. “There’s always a lot more going on underneath the surface, you never know what’s going on with somebody. [I wanted] to show that someone with a lot of education and a lot of accomplishments has also been homeless, has also struggled with substance use, has also lived through a lot of trauma. This can happen to any of us. Life circumstances will present themselves and you deal with what you have to deal with.”
He says he also wanted to put a face to a statistic. “Not everyone is swayed by numbers. You often have to connect to the heart and to the personal story. So I think giving a face to the numbers is really important and just to show that people from all walks of life, and all backgrounds, that there’s real people behind those numbers and I’m one of those and to hopefully provide some sense of hope.”
“You are not alone”
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on suicide rates has been a topic of discussion and studies among medical professionals. An international group of suicide prevention researchers from around 40 countries formed the International COVID-19 Suicide Prevention Research Collaboration (ICSPRC) to monitor the global effect of COVID-19 on suicide. In April, the medical journal, The Lancet published results from this study and found that in the early months of the pandemic, there was no apparent increase in suicide rates. However the group cautions that we need to be vigilant and monitor the longer-term mental health effects of the pandemic.
“I think it’s still too soon to say, even now what impact the pandemic is going to have on suicide rates. We know that in Canada, from what we have seen so far from the 2020 numbers, we have data from certain provinces like Alberta, B.C., Saskatchewan, saying that suicide rates were either stable or actually declined. Ontario is still pending for 2020,” says Amanda Ceniti, PhD candidate at the ASR Suicide & Depression Studies Program at St. Michael’s Hospital.
According to the Ontario Association for Suicide Prevention, more than 1000 people die by suicide each year in Ontario.
“We do know that the pandemic has increased some of the risk factors that we know are associated with suicide: isolation, job loss, financial stress, a lot of those factors that we know in conventional circumstances are associated with suicide risk. So there is a potential for increased rates of suicide later on but it’s not inevitable. I think that’s where we’re at right now – being really mindful, paying attention to this and monitoring overtime as the pandemic continues on, how this is going to play out,” says Ceniti.
Ceniti, who also co-authored What It Takes To Make It Through, points out that the pandemic has disproportionately affected racialized communities. “Looking deeper into the nuance of the data we might see different things. There was one study that came out from Maryland [USA] that was looking at the first two months of the pandemic, from March to May, and found that suicide rates among Black residents of Maryland almost doubled but White residents in the same state, their rates halved.”
She adds there are studies showing that thoughts of suicide have increased during the pandemic. “We’ve also seen a lot of stress centres and hotlines reporting increased call volumes as well, so that indicates that people are reaching out and seeking help which is arguably a good thing – if we’re seeing that increase in suicidal thoughts but not in rates of death by suicide.”
The neuroscientist says she doesn’t want to sound clichéd but would like to emphasize to anyone with thoughts of suicide: “You are not alone. This is more common than one might think – to have thoughts of suicide. And it’s nothing to be ashamed of and help is available.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please contact:
Distress Centres of Greater Toronto
416-408-4357 / https://www.dcogt.com/
Canadian Suicide Prevention Service
1-833-456-4566 / https://www.crisisservicescanada.ca/
Quebec Residents: 1-866-277-3553
Kids Help Phone
1-800-668-6868 / https://kidshelpphone.ca/
For emergencies: call 911
Where to purchase What It Takes To Make It Through: Stories of Suicide Resilience & Loss:
To attend the book launch virtual event on Friday, September 10 (World Suicide Prevention Day) from 12:30-1:30pm, register at: