Kitchener-Conestoga MP Harold Albrecht plans to engage constituents this summer on the issue of suicide prevention, as part of the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s (MHCC) #308 conversations campaign.
“For too long this whole area has been kept in the shadows,” Albrecht explained. “People sometimes assume that if we talk about suicide it could give people the idea, but research shows the opposite is true; we need to open up the conversation.”
The MHCC launched the #308 conversations campaign last week, calling on each member of parliament to prioritize the issue to help curb the 3,900 suicides in Canada each year.
“We think MPs are uniquely situated in the community to bring people together to have conversations on issues of public concern,” said Stephanie Machel, project director for suicide prevention at the MHCC. “We want members of the community who may not think of themselves as being able to help to start to think differently, and hopefully they will become more aware of people they know who might be at risk and learn support strategies.”
Together with MPs from neighbouring ridings, Albrecht wants to organize a conference where teachers, coaches, health care professionals, suicide prevention advocacy groups and families can contribute “information on what is already being done to identify gaps that might be there, and to share ideas and best practices.”
Albrecht took a leadership role on mental health issues by sponsoring Bill C-300, which gave the Public Health Agency of Canada the mandate to create a national framework on suicide prevention back in December, 2012. Now, Albrecht believes the #308 campaign “will be a great resource for them to come up with an even better framework than they could have without the input from the grassroots across the country.”
Last month, the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health named Albrecht a 2014 champion of mental health for his efforts on Bill C-300 and for raising the political profile of suicide prevention. Despite the accolades and the active involvement on the topic, Albrecht insists he is not an expert. Rather, he is someone who wants “to learn how to help those left behind, to empathize with them and find ways to reduce the deep emotional pain [suicide] causes.”
Working in dentistry for 27 years taught Albrecht the importance of prevention since it’s much easier for patients to practice daily dental hygiene than to undergo restorative surgery down the line, he explains. Similarly, research shows that seemingly simple steps can have a big impact on mental health, like sharing family meals around the dinner table and providing the opportunity for young people to discuss their emotions.
Albrecht, a former pastor, also believes that faith should play a role in suicide prevention.
“I don’t want mental health workers to ignore the importance of faith just because it has become unpopular to talk about in the public sphere,” he said.
Following the passing of his wife Betty shortly after being reelected in May 2011, Albrecht says he suffered intense grief.
“Had it not been for my faith in Christ I don’t know how I would’ve survived that year,” he said. “So I am simply saying to people who work with those struggling, if they even have a spark of [faith], acknowledge it and help them find the resources that will encourage that commitment and provide a strong faith community.”
Given the sensitive nature of the subject, Machel says MPs must exercise caution.
“When you have a conversation about suicide it can be very personal and it can bring out reactions from people who might have had experiences with it,” Machel said. “So we ask that MPs ensure there is someone with mental health first aid training on site at the meetings, and that at the beginning of each discussion it’s made clear that it’s a safe environment with ground rules for what is appropriate.”
Albrecht expects to host a forum in either July or August this summer.
The Waterloo Region Suicide Prevention Council recommends anyone with suicidal thoughts contact the mobile crisis line: 519-744-1813, distress line: 519-745-1166, Kids Health Phone: 1-800-668-6868, Youth Line of Waterloo Region: 519-745-9909, or in an emergency: 911.