World Suicide Prevention Day 2023
This Sunday, September 10th, is World Suicide Prevention Day.
If you are fortunate, your life has not been touched by suicide. I, unfortunately, learned about suicide’s wake of sorrow and despair when I was quite young. I went to a small high school—Old Scona in Edmonton-- and there were 60 of us in my grad class. We got to know each other pretty well over three years. We had our own friend groups but there was also a sense of community.
At the end of first year of university—the University of Alberta for most of us—the father of one of our classmates died by suicide. As word spread among our peers, we committed to attending the father’s funeral even though we had never met him. We learned that funerals are for the survivors, not for the deceased.
Then, eighteen months later, another classmate lost her father to suicide and then, the following week, the brother of a third classmate died by suicide. We grimly rolled up our sleeves and attended more funerals, struggling to understand the pain that must have been asphyxiating those who chose to take their lives. Our understanding was informed by a classmate who had attempted suicide—it isn’t selfish, she explained. All you want is for the pain to end, and you can’t think of anything else.
These deaths changed my three classmates, throwing their lives into a different trajectory, and it changed the attitudes of many of the rest of us. I think that this is when I first got involved with mental health and suicide prevention work—if there was anything I could do for a troubled friend, I wanted to be able to do it.
When my oldest son was in high school, the daughter of a friend of mine attempted suicide and was placed in the Young Adult Psychiatric Ward at the Foothills Hospital. I encouraged my son to visit, even though it was a depressing place, full of distressed adolescents. My son was very compassionate and supportive, but it turns out that he wasn’t the one that would need to learn how to deal with loss.
Each of his younger brothers lost a friend to suicide—young men who hid their despair, leaving shocked family and friends.
The legal profession is not exempt. In fact, in the National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants for Legal Professionals, 24% of lawyers participating in the Study had experienced suicidal ideation. Not all people who experience suicidal ideation follow through with actions, but this statistic—which is double the rate at which American lawyers identified suicidal ideation in the 2016 ABA survey --shows that we appear to be a population at risk. I believe in the maxim forewarned is forearmed. If we know that we are at risk, we can ensure we have appropriate strategies in place and that we know how to access resources.
Having been in the legal profession for more than 35 years, I have known lawyers who died by suicide and I have heard about other situations concerning lawyers I did not know. We have lost wonderful colleagues who left behind caring families and friends.
In Alberta, we have excellent suicide prevention support through the Centre for Suicide Prevention, including a suicide prevention toolkit. The Centre for Suicide Prevention has educational programs and resources. Assist participated as a Buddy in the CSP’s Buddy Up suicide prevention program, designed to reduce suicide among men, who die by suicide at three times the rate of women, and we were able to send 28 peer support volunteers to a suicide prevention workshop.
We learned that when someone is in distress, it is not only okay but appropriate to ask if they are thinking about self-harm, and that by asking this question (which makes us uncomfortable), we can determine how best to help someone.
Sometimes calling 911 is the right response if someone is in imminent danger, but we know that our healthcare system cannot always see people as quickly as it should, so please keep in mind that Alberta lawyers, articling students and law students (and their dependent families) have free access to experienced Registered Psychologists through Assist who can assess and assist people with suicidal ideation. We have access to 24/7 crisis support from these professionals, so if you are in crisis, you can call 1-877-498-6898 and follow the prompts to speak with a counsellor.
If you are trying to help someone else who is in crisis, you can call and connect your friend or family member with our counsellors or the counsellors can help you assess next steps.
You may wonder how calling a crisis counsellor can help when our healthcare system is overwhelmed. Our counsellors have extensive experience in de-escalation and helping people find hope. They can also link us with resources both within the public healthcare system and outside of it. I am a strong believer in a fully funded healthcare system, but if someone’s life is in danger, I support accessing whatever resources may be available.
Canada will be launching a suicide prevention three-digit phone number later this year: 988. Watch for more information about this service as it launches.
World Mental Health Day is October 10th, and CBA-Alberta is hosting a webinar with the Centre for Suicide Awareness. This could be a CPD activity to be built into your CPD plan (due on September 30, 2023!).
And Assist periodically offers Psychological First Aid training to equip us with basic skills to help someone in distress. Watch this newsletter and our social media for the next session.
According to the CSP’s Toolkit, which contains references to relevant research studies in support of its points, the following are risk factors associated with suicide:
- Previous suicide attempt
- Suicide loss (someone close to them has died by suicide)
- Mental illness (especially if untreated, including depression and postpartum depression)
- Unresolved traumatic experiences (including childhood trauma, intergenerational trauma, and racism-related trauma)
- Access to lethal means
- Reluctance to seek help
- Belief that showing emotion means showing weakness
- Risk-taking behaviours
- Aggression and impulsivity
- Social isolation
- Substance use that disrupts everyday functioning
There are also factors which protect against suicide risk:
- Close, positive, and supportive relationships with family, friends, and others
- Tendency to look for support when needed
- Positive coping strategies, including emotional regulation
- Comfort expressing emotion
- Easy access to mental health care; the ‘right care’ at the ‘right time’ (It’s important that this care is stigma-free, culturally appropriate and trauma-informed)
Assist actively engages in supporting the development of these protective factors (which can be protective against other mental health challenges, as well. We:
- help build supportive relationships through both our peer support and community programs,
- publicize how support is available, including a 24/7 crisis counselling service
- educate the legal community about positive coping strategies
- encourage expression of emotion in safe places, and
- provide links to excellent mental health support.
As we observe Suicide Prevention Day this weekend, please keep in mind the following signs that an individual may be at risk of suicide:
- Statements that indicate hopelessness or being a burden
- Threats of suicide or comments about wanting to die*
- Looking for ways to die*
- Suicide attempt
- Increased substance use
- No sense of purpose in life or evident reason for living
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Rage, anger, irritability
- Dramatic mood changes
We don’t have to play amateur psychologist, looking at the behaviour of our peers, family and friends—we have access to highly educated and experienced Registered Psychologists who can help us link people we care about with support services even if the person we want to help is not a member of the legal community (or a dependent) who can also coach you to have a supportive conversation with the person you are worried about.
Let’s build our awareness of suicide prevention strategies together, creating a community which will respond to despair with support and connection. Assist is here to help so please reach out to us for either professional counselling (1-877-498-6898) or for peer support and community (1-877-727-5508.)