Living Hope Program a Coordinated City-Wide Effort to Curb the Number of Suicides in Edmonton

It's a gorgeous autumn afternoon. The birds are chirping and squirrels are scampering about, gathering nuts for the upcoming winter.

01 October 2019

It's a gorgeous autumn afternoon. The birds are chirping and squirrels are scampering about, gathering nuts for the upcoming winter.

Seems like a perfect day to conduct an interview outdoors - which is exactly what Lahn Jones and I decide to do, after ditching his nearby office for a picnic table at a west side city park.

But this idyllic setting belies the painful subject we're here to discuss: suicide, and how to prevent it. It's an issue Jones spends a lot of time thinking about as Project Coordinator of Living Hope, a community plan aimed at preventing suicides in Edmonton.

The ambitious city-wide awareness, education and prevention program, under development since 2016 and launched two years later, runs until 2021. Jones, funded by AHS, is one of a three-person project team who work for Living Hope, including two project management positions provided by the City of Edmonton.

"Up to this point in my career I've focused on trying to understand how best to support peoples' mental health and well-being, and Living Hope has given me an opportunity to be a part of something very special," says Jones, who previously worked with local nonprofits, tackling issues like domestic violence.

"Living Hope is a municipal initiative so it's really grounded right here in Edmonton," he explains.

"To me it's quite inspirational to see this level of partnership come together, with a wide variety of stakeholders including Alberta Health Services, the City of Edmonton, the Alberta Capital Region United Way, Edmonton Police Service, Edmonton Fire Rescue Services, Emergency Medical Services, the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Alberta. We're all taking a very collaborative approach with this."

A 60-page report titled Living Hope: A Community Plan to Prevent Suicide in Edmonton, outlines the history, background and primary goals of Living Hope. The initiative's key goals are:

To provide awareness and education that promotes positive mental health, reduces the stigma of suicide and provides an understanding of how to help someone considering suicide;
To ensure the whole continuum of services - prevention, intervention, postvention - is fully accessible to all; and
To address the needs of higher-risk populations (including members of the LGBTQ2S and Indigenous communities, and middle-aged males).

Currently available data does not give a precise picture of who is dying by suicide in Edmonton, since not every death by suicide is reported as such, but the report does highlight some key facts, including:

Middle aged males have the highest suicide death rate: about 75% of those who die by suicide are males, primarily between the ages of 40 and 59;
Suicide is the single greatest cause of injury-related deaths for Indigenous people;
For every person who dies by suicide, it is estimated that as many as 20 others are likely to have attempted suicide;
In 2015, 214 people died by suicide in the Edmonton Zone; of these, 148 (69%) were male and 66 (31%) were female;
In 2016 there were 2,365 visits to hospital emergency departments in the Edmonton Zone due to suicide attempts.
Members of the LGBTQ2S community are two and a half times more likely to have attempted suicide than heterosexuals; LGBTQ2S youth and transgender women are particularly at risk.
More than 20% of off-reserve Indigenous adults reported having suicidal thoughts, according to a 2012 Statistics Canada survey.

The key risk factors for suicide include mental illness, addictions, social isolation, major life transitions, illness, trauma, poverty, oppression and discrimination, the report notes.

On the positive side, the "protective factors" that prevent suicide include positive coping skills, social supports, healthy relationships, reduced stigma, having a sense of purpose, and good health.

"Living Hope really lives and breathes by its community connections, its community engagement and the many partnerships that support it. It's truly an inspirational effort involving a large number of committed individuals and organizations," says Jones.

The effort dates back to 2016, when the Edmonton Suicide Prevention Advisory Committee released the Edmonton Suicide Prevention Strategy, 2016-2021. So what triggered that initial heightened focus on suicide?

"I would say it was a combination of things. Community members impacted by suicide made a request to Council for action to be taken on the High Level Bridge, where many suicides occurred, and their voices were heard," Jones explains.

Recognizing the need to take preventative measures, City Council then directed the city administration to develop a suicide prevention framework.

"Various supportive community partners then came together to lend weight to that movement, with the CMHA being one of them. That led to the creation of the Implementation Planning Committee, and the plan being formalized in 2018, which is Living Hope."

The Implementation Planning Committee Leadership Team includes Mark Snaterse, Executive Director, Addiction & Mental Health, Edmonton Zone, Alberta Health Services; Jenny Kain, Director, Family & Community Supports, Community Inclusion and Investment, City of Edmonton; Ione Challborn, Executive Director, Canadian Mental Health Association, Edmonton Region; and Jean Dalton, Director, Neighbourhood Health and Personal Well-Being, United Way, Alberta Capital Region.

Scott Phillips, Assistant Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Alberta, has also been actively involved in bringing the Living Hope initiative to life, says Jones.

"City Councilors Scott McKeen and Aaron Paquette are also key supporters of Living Hope. The eleven of us media campaign was launched in September, with a number of City Council members attending in support. It's been wonderful to have such a strong city commitment to this effort."

The eleven of us campaign slogan and website (https://11ofus.ca) refers to the fact that on average, 11 Edmontonians attempt or die by suicide each day.

"One of the key things we want to promote with Living Hope and the eleven of us campaign is to offer community members and stakeholders, service providers - and any others who might not have access to training and education around suicide prevention - opportunities to get that training," he says.

"So a training framework is available on the website that provides no-cost suicide prevention training, including ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training), QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) Training, SafeTALK and Trauma Informed Care. The training opportunities offer a range of content and lengths to meet the different needs and availability."

In the end, Living Hope is aimed at all Edmontonians, not only those who are directly involved in suicide prevention.

"The foundation of Living Hope's perspective is that in order to effectively promote and achieve suicide prevention we have to employ a multi-faceted public health approach. We really feel strongly about that," says Jones.

"It has been understood that by engaging everyone in the community and working together to come up with an effective strategy for suicide prevention, this would be the best approach. The support from community partners has been amazing, so I would say there is a strong belief in the direction that Living Hope is going in. The foundations have been built and we are hopeful we'll see positive results."