Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among youth in Canada, sparking a consortium of child advocates from across the country to call on all levels of government to implement a national prevention strategy.
In a 25-page paper released Tuesday during a conference at Winnipeg's Fort Garry Hotel, the Canadian Council of Child and Youth Advocates highlighted a pressing need for aggressive, collaborative efforts to decrease youth suicide. The paper drew on public reports and available data from 10 provinces and two territories.
"Suicide amongst young people in Canada is preventable, and we can no longer tolerate the inaction of federal, provincial and territorial governments," said Del Graff, child and youth advocate for Alberta, who addressed media on behalf of the other provincial and territorial representatives.
Central to the paper were three calls to action directed at the federal government.
First, the development and implementation of an inclusive, comprehensive national suicide strategy, with an emphasis on integrated service delivery. Second, the creation of a cross-jurisdictional data system on suicides to address under-reporting, statistical inconsistencies, and an overall lack of reliable data. Third, the development of meaningful partnerships with Indigenous communities that record high rates of suicidal behaviour among youth (a phenomenon tied to the lingering effects of the residential school system, Sixties Scoop, and colonization).
Canada is currently the only G7 nation without a national strategy, the advocates noted, despite the country ranking in the top five for highest teenage suicide rates in the world, according to a report published this month by Children First Canada.
Indigenous communities, as well as marginalized groups such as LGBTTQ+ people, are disproportionately over-represented in whatever statistics are available, the paper notes.
Graff's tone was urgent as he described the challenges facing communities in addressing youth mental health and suicide. As advocates from each province and territory communicated, he said, they realized each was fighting similar, individual battles to increase resources and care.
"Each of us in our provinces have been doing our own work," agreed Daphne Penrose, Manitoba's child and youth advocate. "One of the things we started talking about was commonalities across the country, so we started to embark on writing a national paper."
While the paper's intentions are clear, and there was consensus amongst the advocates regarding its urgency, the available data is often outdated or not comprehensive, it notes: for example, statistics commonly used when discussing Indigenous youth suicide are "close to 25 years old."
In Manitoba, the most recent advocate's report showed 20 youth suicides occurred in 2017-18. The newest report is expected in November, Penrose said, and it will likely reiterate the need for more resources and direct action to address concerns in Manitoba at large and in pockets where the suicide crisis is even direr.
In late August, God's Lake First Nation — located about 550 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg — declared a state of emergency after four youth suicides this summer.
Through conversations with other advocates, it became clear each province and territory contained pockets where suicide was particularly pressing, which further strengthened the need for the calls to action to be addressed, Graff said.
The council also said it was highly important to involve those communities, as well as elders and youth themselves, in the development of a strategy.
"The issues in this paper are of national concern, and we must act now," Graff said, adding the group hopes to make it a federal election campaign issue. "I do know Canadians care about young people, but I also know if nothing changes, nothing changes."