Alberta sees spike in suicide rates

How can employers support workers in tough labour market?
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/22/2016

Facing a rocky economy and sweeping job cuts, Alberta has another serious problem on its hands: A marked spike in its suicide rate.

The province has seen a 30 per cent increase in suicide rates over the first half of 2015, according to the chief medical examiner’s office, leading to speculation that mass layoffs and financial uncertainty may be part of the cause. 

Layoffs could certainly be a  significant factor — but it’s too early to say what’s behind the increase, according to Mara Grunau, executive director of the Centre for Suicide Prevention in Calgary. 

“In Alberta, the rates are high to start with. More Albertans die by suicide every year than they do in fatal car collisions. It’s higher than Ontario, it’s higher than most other provinces,” she said.  

“This is the first delta we’ve seen in a long time — that is a huge red flag. Is it due to the economic layoffs? We don’t know. It’s just too soon to know. 

“We only have data till June, it’s not broken down at all — we have lump sum numbers per month, but it’s not broken down by region, by sex, by age, so we’re really trying to piece it together at this point.”

Research has shown that for every one per cent rise in unemployment, there’s a corresponding 0.79 per cent rise in the suicide rate, said Grunau. 

“However, there’s typically about a two-year delay between the two. People exhaust their personal resources before they get to the point of considering suicide,” she said.

“Suicide is a very complex issue — there’s lots of contributing factors. I’m not saying that (these layoffs) are not a contributing 

factor, but we don’t have enough data to make that sort of direct link that this increase in suicide is directly related to layoffs in the oilpatch.”  

Another potential factor that could be at play? June 2015 came two years after a catastrophic flood that hit regions of Alberta and displaced more than 100,000 people.  

“Again, I can’t make that determination of whether that factored in or how that factored in, I just know that what research shows us is that two years is when you see the full impact of psycho-social effects from a disaster,” said Grunau.

The Calgary Distress Centre has seen an increase in overall calls but not specifically in suicide-related calls, according to Joan Roy, executive director.

“We have seen an increase in overall calls — about a four per cent increase is where it’s at right now,” she said. 

“I think, especially in that first six months of the year, there were a lot of folks who were very anxious — there was a lot of uncertainty around whether they were going to be laid off or not.

“We do see calls where people are struggling economically or financially because of layoffs and that, and I feel confident to say there has been a bit of an increase.”

Vulnerable population

A further consideration is the fact that employers in the oilpatch and natural resources industry are dealing with a particularly high-risk employee population, said Grunau. 

“Three out of four (suicide) deaths in Canada are male. Women have far more attempts, but men choose more lethal means. And men in our society have been socialized — still, unfortunately — to not reach out for help. They’re not as socially connected as women, they work in isolation,” she said. 

“If you think about the industries in Alberta, we’ve got a lot of traditional ‘male’ industries… and our men don’t talk. They don’t ask for help, they ‘man up,’ they keep it inside. And it’s a bad combination.” 

Women are more likely to attempt suicide but men are more likely to succeed, said Valerie Taylor, psychiatrist-in-chief at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto.

“Part of the reason is that men are more likely to use more violent methods,” she said. “They’re also more likely to not communicate when they’re feeling bad, and to use coping methods like (abusing) substances.”

Warning signs for potential suicide attempts might include substance misuse or a person seeming withdrawn or moody, she said — and people should know the type of acute financial stress seen in Alberta, particularly when unexpected, can exacerbate any pre-existing issues. 

The downturn came as a surprise to many in the province, according to Roy. 

“At least, it didn’t feel like (there was much) leading up to it… a lot of people were shocked by it and taken off guard, so I think we’re very good at adjusting our lifestyle to our income… but the flipside of that is that it really puts us in a situation when a job loss does happen, it’s hard now to pay all our bills, it’s hard now to maintain that lifestyle.”

Employer support

It’s a difficult issue for employers to tackle, according to Taylor, because the problems may arise just as an individual is exiting the workplace. 

“It’s challenging… a lot of organizations have mental health (supports) or employee assistance programs that people can access while they’re working, but as soon as they’re no longer working, they can’t access that anymore,” she said. 

Employers should consider providing support for a period of time even after people leave. 

“I also think that employers need to be a little bit more well-versed in what are the local resources and be able to refer people to crisis programs,” she said. 

“There should be some information made available to people as well that this is a very common situation that can cause a lot of acute stress.”

Often, people just don’t know where they can go for help, said Grunau. 

“One thing that I think our employers could do more of is give people a road map. If they have an EAP, remind them they have an EAP. They may be losing their job, but they may hold onto their benefits for six months,” she said. “Direct them to those resources.” 

Employers can also be as proactive as possible in communicating, said Roy. 

“If the layoffs are coming, let people know — the more information that people have, the better able they are to cope with things.”

It’s really important that employers share what they reasonably can share with employees, she said.

“(And employers should) make sure that if they are laid off, that people are OK… one of the things we always want to do is make sure that when we are giving people that bad news, to make sure that they have supports in place. And if they don’t have supports in place, then I think it’s our obligation to help with that.” 

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