EDMONTON—A death by suicide on the front steps of Alberta’s legislature Monday has reignited a conversation about a province that experts say is grappling with a rising suicide rate due to a souring economy.
On Monday afternoon, a man reportedly used a gun to take his own life on the front steps of the legislature in Edmonton, prompting the adjournment of the house until later that evening. NDP MLA Sarah Hoffman called it a “public, tragic loss of life.”
But while Monday’s incident may be rare due to its public nature, suicide in Alberta has been pushed into the spotlight as of late. The provincial suicide rate is already higher than other provinces, researchers say, and it’s grown alongside the province’s unemployment rate. It’s an issue that Premier Jason Kenney addressed as recently as Saturday during the United Conservative Party’s Annual General Meeting in Calgary.
“The suicide rate in Alberta is 50 per cent higher per capita than the province of Ontario,” Kenney said, before referencing research by the University of Calgary School of Public Policy, which estimates that for every one per cent increase in Alberta’s unemployment rate, there are 16 additional suicides.
“For many, this is literally a matter of life and death,” Kenney said on Saturday. “So yes, a growing number of Albertans are afraid for our future.”
Edmonton Police said they will not be releasing any further details on Monday’s death, including the person’s identity or motive. They have classified the death as “non criminal” in nature.
In September, University of Calgary professor Ron Kneebone released a report titled “Suicide and the Economy” that demonstrates a relationship between unemployment and suicide rates in Alberta.
His research, using Statistics Canada numbers from 2000 to 2017, shows a 2.8 per cent increase in suicide rates for every one per cent increase in unemployment. That equates to about 16 more people.
“What (the numbers) should do is just raise awareness that when the economy turns downward, there’s more happening than people simply losing their job,” Kneebone said.
“I would suggest when governments think about public policies, they need to think of all the ramifications about what’s going on. And when the economy turns into a recession, I think it’s a good time for governments to think harder about things like mental health.”
In his report, Kneebone pointed out that while women are three to four times more likely to attempt suicide, men are far more likely to die by suicide. As Kneebone puts it, men choose “nonreversible methods.”
He added suicides, like incidents of domestic violence, tend to rise around this time of year and can be connected to money issues in the lead-up to Christmas.
“Particularly this time of year, we need to understand that people are under a lot of financial stress, and that can often have some very negative outcomes,” Kneebone said.
In Alberta, 13.2 out of 100,000 people died by suicide in 2018. In Ontario, the rate was 8.9 people per 100,000. The average rate of suicide across Canada in 2018 was 10.3 per 100,000 people, putting Alberta on the higher end of the spectrum.
Numbers are down in Alberta and across Canada compared to 2017, however.
Mara Grunau, executive director of the Centre for Suicide Prevention in Calgary, said that while suicide is linked to unemployment, suicide rates have remained relatively flat in Alberta over the last decade. Still, she said “way too many people” still take their own lives.
Grunau said it’s important for people to be proactive, rather than simply telling those around them who are struggling to reach out for help.
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“Hope abounds, help is available,” she said.
“Have your eyes on your people. Because once a person is down that road of significant suicidal thoughts and feelings, telling them to reach out or help — you might as well tell them to scale Mount Everest. It’s just not easy, and often it’s beyond their ability at that point.”
If you are considering suicide, there is help. The Canadian Mental Health Association has a list of regional crisis numbers and there is a list of local crisis centres at the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. You can also call 911 or in Alberta, call Health Link at 811 or the Mental Health Help Line at 1-877-303-2642, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.