Editorial: As suicide rate rises, struggling for answers

Suicide rates in B.C. rose more than 20 per cent between 2006 and 2015. While there was a slight drop in 2016, those numbers are similar to the American experience, where suicides climbed 25 per cent between 1999 and 2016. More than 500 people take their own lives each year in B.C.

Several facts emerge from this bleak picture. Men are three times more likely to kill themselves than women. The same is true of illicit-drug deaths. Far more men than women die of an unintentional overdose.

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About half of all suicides occur in the 40-to-59 age group. And Greater Victoria’s suicide rate is third-highest among the 10 largest population centres in B.C.

First Nations people are hugely overrepresented. Studies have found that, Canada-wide, 25 per cent of Indigenous adults have contemplated ending their lives. And suicides among First Nations youth aged 15 to 24 are six times higher than the rate among non-Indigenous Canadians.

The reasons for the surge in Canada and the U.S. are not fully understood. Marital discord is a factor, as are job loss and loneliness. Alcohol and drug abuse play a part.

Mental illness also contributes. The American fashion designer Kate Spade, who killed herself two weeks ago, was known to suffer from bipolar disease.

And Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef who also took his own life two weeks ago, struggled with depression.

Yet, while these are known to be causal factors, they do not explain why suicides are on the rise. Both Canada and the U.S. are wealthy countries. Drugs for mental illness are much more effective than in days gone by.

And physician-assisted deaths are not included in these totals. By any reasonable measure, it seems that suicides should be declining.

It’s possible the financial crisis of 2008 played a role. Many people lost their jobs. Others lost their homes.

The question is: What can be done? Some pointers are available.

Frequently, people who kill themselves talked to friends or family about having suicidal thoughts. This is a warning sign that should never be overlooked. In B.C., the number to call for help is 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433).

Governments at all levels should also take this issue seriously. After 95 per cent of municipalities in England developed plans to reduce suicide, death rates across the country fell for the first time in two decades.

In B.C., the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions is creating a strategy that focuses on prevention and early intervention. And health authorities have adopted guidelines for suicide risk management.

The media also have a role to play, though it’s not an easy line to walk. We have to speak out on this subject, to keep it front of mind. Yet psychologists who have studied suicide warn to stay away from dramatic headlines.

And prescription drugs might be implicated. A recent American study found that more than 200 commonly prescribed drugs, such as some hormonal birth-control pills, painkillers and blood-pressure medications, have depression or suicide listed as side-effects. The more of these prescriptions a patient is given, the greater the risk.

It might be an exaggeration to say that suicide has become a public-health crisis, but if preventive measures aren’t taken, that might be what happens. And the first step is to have an open discussion about the risks — social, economic, medical and family-related — that have brought this killer into our midst.

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