How to Manage a Suicide Pact

Recently at a Montreal high school, 62 high school students made a suicide pact. As the story broke last week, the Montreal Gazette revealed that school officials had determined the three people who started the pact, who claimed that it was a prank. The article also quoted a school official as saying that “some of the students did not know what they were signing because only the first sheet indicated that it was a suicide pact”. No doubt school personnel were trying to allay the fears of the public, and more importantly, parents of students at College d’Anjou, a private high school in Montreal’s east end.

I learned about this situation when I was asked to comment and provide advice for Global News. I found the tone of school officials, as characterized by the Montreal Gazette, to be troubling. We know too much in 2017 not to be concerned whenever news of a suicide pact emerges, especially among youth between 15 and 24 years old. During these years, suicide is the second most common cause of death.

Some of the other facts that ought to have engendered more concern are the actual statistics about suicide and suicide attempts in Canada. The Canadian Mental Health Association has found that 34% of youth between the ages of 15 and 24 have contemplated suicide – one third. Also, the actual number of suicide attempts in this population in Canada is 8%. Both the rate of contemplation and the rate of attempts increases when there is a suicide pact. The acceptance implied in a suicide pact reduces a young person’s emotional barriers to suicide and so the risk increases.

What should happen when a school learns of a suicide pact? There are 3 direct steps that might help. The first step consists of education through assemblies. Bring all concerned together, in this case the entire student body along with their parents and other interested family members, e.g. siblings. Have an experienced resource person speak to this group about what to do to reassure themselves that their family member will be okay. This person can direct the assembly to resources for Mental Health First Aid as well as to local crisis and emergency services. There will be lots of questions about both the general subject of suicide and suicide pacts and about the specific situation. The resource person and school personnel should be prepared to address these. The school personnel must be prepared to address concerns openly, without judgment, and compassionately. This is not a time to be defensive. It is a time to make sure you have support moving forward should there be a need for further mental health assistance.

The second step must involve meetings with mental health professionals for each person involved in the pact. The best scenario is that one third of these youth were contemplating suicide and it is important to reach out and find help for these young people.

Finally, it is an important time to remind everyone of these three circumstances that indicate an increased risk of suicide in a young person:
1. Increased use of alcohol and drugs.
2. Giving away one’s belongings.
3. Signs and symptoms of depression or a history of depression.

Doing all of this is a good start to preventing suicide, but suicide and suicide attempts are symptoms of a serious medical illness. People die of serious illnesses. In some cases, such as this, these deaths can be prevented.

If anyone reading this has questions, please ask. The best way to prevent suicide is to talk about it openly and without judgment.

Opioids and Social Capital

Over the weekend, I read the first article about the opioid crisis that made any sense to me. It was published in Scientific American last week and explained why so many of the strategies that we are using to combat the rising rates of opioid overdose have been ineffective in curbing the rate of overdose to any great degree.

The article summarizes the research that suggests that the best ways to address the abuse and dependence on opioids is to help communities strengthen the social ties between people. The author opines that the emotional reasons that we become dependent on any substance are factors that communities should seek to address in to reduce the morbidity and mortality related to opioids.

In one study published in the Journal of Health Economics, researchers looked at the impact of macroeconomic changes on opioid use in specific counties and states in the United States. For the region studied, researchers found that, when the county unemployment rate rose 1%, the opioid death rate per 100,000 rose by 3.6% and the opioid overdose Emergency Department visit rate rose by 7%. These statistics held throughout the state.

The article summarizes the science related to the body’s naturally occurring opioids – endorphins and enkephalins – these help us to moderate both physical and emotional pain. The science is outlined concisely and briefly and reminds the reader of those factors which increase the levels of these naturally occurring opioids. It also reminds us how this hormonal system insulates us from emotional pain in our lives.
I have never prescribed opioid medication myself, and most of the doctors I know are similar in practice to me so I have been bewildered about who all the doctors prescribing them could possibly be. I’ve seen the numbers, however, and I certainly know of physicians who have gotten into difficulties because of the way they prescribe opioids. I understand that physician regulatory bodies have sought to address the increasing rate of opioid abuse and overdose by offering courses on prescribing these medications.

To address this dangerously increasing use of opioids, communities have been distributing naloxone kits, setting up safe injection sites and running health prevention campaigns. I support these measures as urgent action must be taken in the moment to do what we can to prevent harm to those already at risk because of opioid use.
Having said this, it’s time to think about what can be done to address those social capital deficits. The OECD defines social capital as “networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups”. These networks include such networks as family, friends, groups we belong to, or organizations that support us. According to the research, the loss of social capital is linked to increasing opioid use and all its attendant risks.

I’ve been thinking of social capital lately as I’ve worked to find supports in their communities for youth in my practice, supports such as groups where families might learn to cook or spend time with other families. As I did this research, I realized that some Ottawa communities are better at this work than others. It makes sense from this that communities might consider supporting community development as well as safe injection sites and naloxone kits.

Many reading this will believe that this is all about the social determinants of health but this is a reflection on the need for all of us to consider how we personally build communities. Do we go to groups? Do we initiate support activities? Do we go to community events? All things considered, cities can support communities but they can’t provide them the way they can buy naloxone kits or new services. They can’t make your neighbours neighbourly. That takes individual people getting out of their chairs, turning off the TV or their devices, and talking to people or working with people. While it does build a community to have skype meetings or online chats, this research is telling us that, if we truly want to have communities, then we must have some that we can walk to when we’re caught in a snowstorm or hurricane, or the power goes out. Perhaps if we volunteered at the food bank, it wouldn’t be so hard to go there for food, or even just company, when the need arose. Having community meals or parties or street events, bringing disparate parts of communities together, can help you find out what services you can have or help in your neighbourhood.

Last weekend, the Wellington West Community held an event on Wellington Street. As I walked along running my errands, I stopped off at a few services. I learned that one agency, Ottawa West Community Support, has a range of services to help seniors continue to live in their own homes. They told me that volunteering with them has helped many older people make the transition to using their services. That is social capital. I learned that the library helps anyone learn how to navigate the internet safely, from kids to seniors to newcomers. The library has an English Conversation Group. These are examples of building social capital.

This research and consideration has me thinking about how I could invest in social capital in my hospital practice and so I have been thinking about the kinds of groups that could most help youth in my community. I have a few ideas but would be interested in others’ ideas also. Please tell me. It seems a long way from the opioid crisis to me, but the research suggests that I am wrong. How do you build social capital? How do you think we could help?

(This photo has been in multiple places on the internet. I found it in Lawrence Wall’s twitter feed.)

Just Ask

I consider myself to be a very fortunate doctor because I do not often have to deal with the death of my patients. My patients usually recover from their illnesses and, because they are young, I am often able to see them live out the promise of their lives.
The deaths in my practice, however, always continue to haunt me because they are deaths by suicide and suicide is such an insidious outcome that even those of us who see it most often can forget that suicidal ideation and attempts are serious symptoms of a severe illness. We should know better, but we still forget that this severe illness is very difficult to recognize.

Severe illnesses in youth are so difficult for all of us to comprehend. Depression and suicide are even more difficult because they are symptoms that often occur in young people who can present a cheerful countenance to the world – who have a gift of helping others to feel happy. Have you not heard this? Do you not know of a situation in which this was exactly the case?

On the weekend, I read J. Kelly Nestruck’s article in the Globe and Mail about Jonah McIntosh, a young actor at the Shaw Festival who died by suicide in July. He recorded how the Artistic Director at the Shaw Festival saw Mr. McIntosh: “always smiling and making everyone around him smile”. Mr. Nestruk also documented that a death such as the young actor’s suicide was not one the theatre company had experienced, which seemed surprising to me. There is a suicide every forty seconds in the world and artists and actors have a suicide rate of 24 per 100,000, higher than physicians or teachers or nurses.

The article underlined for me once again that those of us who work in mental health fail to educate the public about how difficult it is to predict the course of depression – we have not communicated how a smiling face cannot be assumed to be an accurate reflection of mood. Many people with depression leave their friends and family, leave their doctors’ offices, with a smiling face even when they are plagued by persistent suicidal thoughts, with plans to act on their troubling symptoms. Most of these people have brought joy to their families and friends, but have never found it for themselves.
At this stage in my career, I no longer think about whether I am asking the question sensitively. I just ask, “Are you thinking of suicide?” “Do you have a plan to kill yourself?” People ask all the time if these questions could cause a person to think of suicide but this is not the case.

Just ask, I tell people. If the person you ask seems shocked, or makes some protest, just say,”I am so worried about you and I do not want to make the mistake of not asking about suicide.” We would not hesitate to ask about the serious symptoms of heart disease. We must begin to do the same for depression and suicide. We can save these wonderful lives if we ask. We can prevent suicide.

(On September 10 at 8 pm I put a candle in my window to show my support for suicide prevention and for those who die by suicide and for those who survive.)

A Public Health Campaign for Legal Marijuana

When I first reviewed the Government of Ontario’s approach to legal marijuana, I was disappointed. I was hoping for an approach with a strong foundation in public health. I feel strongly about this and wrote about my concerns for the Ottawa Citizen.

As I read the views of other health stakeholders in legal marijuana, I could not help but notice that many of these felt that the government had addressed many of their concerns. Both Ontario Public Health and the Canadian Medical Association reported being satisfied with a legal age of 19 for marijuana, even though both had advocated for a higher age. The article I read said these organizations described the government’s approach as “pragmatic”. Why am I not satisfied?

This pragmatic approach focuses on regulations and where marijuana will be sold and the public health relies on regulation to manage the age of use. However, as all clinicians working in youth mental health and addiction, I know that the key to changes in behavior and attitude lie in education, specifically public education through health communication campaigns. In mental health, we are very familiar with how successful these campaigns can be. In the past ten years, vigorous health communication campaigns have  been able to neutralize the stigma that existed for centuries against mental illness and persons with a mental illness. I had hoped that, right from the beginning, the Health Minister would have pledged the funding for a sophisticated health communication campaign to ensure that all citizens understood the health risks of marijuana, especially youth for whom the impact on the developing brain can be significant. There was the promise that such a campaign would be developed, but no firm details were provided as to what steps have been taken to implement the campaign.

The campaign I wanted would include persuasive communications informed by social marketing strategies, with messaging designed for different target groups. The public health messages must be accurate, interesting and stimulating so that different communications might be needed for different groups and especially different age groups. I know that the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care can manage this level of sophistication. In fact, I even found a presentation entitled Developing health communication campaigns on the Public Health Ontario website.

The campaign I wanted would start now so that awareness of the risks of cannabis use and information about safe practices for using legal marijuana would be known by the time legalization comes into effect  in July 2018.

The campaign I wanted for youth would reflect the reality that Canadian young people are already the highest users of marijuana in Canada by age group. It would recognize that rules and regulations cannot be the only tools we use to prevent marijuana overuse and addiction.

Another public health element that I was seeking was the commitment of support for further research to evaluate the impact of legal marijuana. This will help us to understand how the Government’s approach might be improved in the future. It will reassure the public, including mental health professionals, that the Government is prepared to be prudent in ensuring that legal marijuana is introduced safely.

Finally, with the growing demand for mental health services, another element that I had hoped to see was a commitment to improved funding for services for addiction. While I do not believe that the legalization of marijuana will necessarily lead to higher rates of marijuana addiction, we know that the province’s coffers will benefit from increased tax revenues. Many groups were hoping for a commitment to improved services, services that are already much needed.

The legalization of marijuana is an opportunity for the Government of Ontario to demonstrate understanding that addiction is a mental health problem and that those people with an addiction should be assisted and not shunned. The young people that I see with marijuana addiction have higher rates of many psychiatric symptoms including psychosis and suicidal ideation and attempt. Many of the young people I see who are now in recovery would provide great advice on how the public health approach to legal marijuana could engage youth in its safe introduction. I hope the Government will seek the advice of those most at risk – people under 25.

Book Review: The One Memory of Flora Banks

I read The One Memory of Flora Banks (Author: Emily Barr at www.emilybarr.com)  last weekend when I was on call at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. On a day when I was providing service to a busy emergency room, it grounded me to be considering the plight of a young person who had suffered considerable trauma and had lost her memory because of it.

This is the adventure of a 17 year old girl named Flora Banks who has anterograde amnesia, which means that she cannot remember anything that happened after the event which caused the amnesia. To help her manage her life, Flora writes down every important thing that she must remember. Many, many things she wants to remember are written into notebooks, but the most important things are written on her hands. Of the important messages, one is prominent and it is a tattoo that says: Flora be brave.

Flora’s memory problems, we are told at the beginning, are the result of a brain tumour that was removed at age 10. The book is written in Flora’s voice and so the reader can experience what it is like to live inside Flora’s brain. To an observer, it would seem as though Flora has lost a lot of her capacity. But from inside Flora’s brain, the reader realizes that this is not the case. One of the most important messages of this book is never to underestimate a person’s abilities.

Even though Flora is capable of more than is evident, she is very hopeless about what she has lost and worries about what her life holds. One evening this changes when a boy kisses her and Flora remembers this kiss for longer than her usual several hours. Immediately, Flora is hopeful that this boy, or his love, holds the answer to her regaining a functional memory. She sets off to find him, despite the limitations of her memory and without anyone supporting her.

There are many days in my work as a psychiatrist for youth that I see young people coping with having a chronic medical condition that could limit what they might achieve. Like Flora, they have periods of hopelessness when they sadly wonder what their lives will bring. But many of them, like Flora, refuse to be defeated by despair. I don’t care if they disagree with me about their medications, or their symptoms or their diagnosis. I hope that I am true to the spirit of hope that lives in them, and I work to be worthy of that positivity.

This is an important book because we can all benefit by knowing Flora. Not all of the people who love Flora trust her hope any longer, but she meets a lot of new people in her voyage to find love and her memory and they do trust Flora’s hope. Please read about Flora and resolve to help at least one person stay hopeful.

(Note: I read the 2017 Penguin Random House edition of The One Memory of Flora Banks. The photo is the cover of that edition.)

Does Ontario Have A Gun Problem?

Adolescents have been the focus of my practice in Psychiatry for more than twenty years.  Adolescent boys have a complicated relationship with violence and anger and it is not unusual to see that erupt, especially when they are struggling with symptoms of mental illness. It almost seems as though, at some point in adolescence, men must work through what their relationship with violence will be. As they do this work, the entire course of their lives can be affected by the lethality of the weapons they have at hand. A gun is never a helpful accessory for a young man struggling to understand and cope with violent urges toward himself or others.

Why am I thinking about guns? I have just returned from Boston and early in March I spent a week in New York City for the Commission on the Status of Women. As a Canadian, I am always more cautious when walking by myself, especially at night, in American cities. This is because, as a Canadian, I believe that there are many more guns in these American cities than in Canada. Public health research has shown that guns are a health risk.

Having said this, both Boston and New York are managing gun violence while Toronto, a city where I spend much more time, has seen spikes in gun violence in 2016 and increasing gun violence in 2017. Even in Ottawa, the capital city known for its general safety, had a higher than normal number of shootings in 2016 and 2017 is showing the same worrying trend.

Canadians often smugly think that gun control manages gun violence and, while all evidence supports this, these recent trends need to be considered. These increasing numbers mostly reflect violence involving the young men under 25 I mentioned at the outset. We know that young men’s brains continue to develop into their twenties and most parents of young men certainly notice this. This is true even though, by age 21, most young men have undertaken significant responsibilities related to education and work, and often families or relationships.

During the period of late adolescence and early adulthood, young men are at higher risk of being perpetrators and victims of violence. Over many years, there has been much speculation on why this is the case. Research cites adaptive advantages from our past to the economic disparity and racial tension that is believed to fuel violence around the world.

The one factor that has kept this violence from becoming lethal has been access to a weapon, usually firearms, that immediately make an attacker much more dangerous. In fact, countries that implemented gun control saw the number of multiple murders significantly decrease. This fact alone is the number one reason to implement gun control. Gun control is the perfect example of a public health measure based on the number of deaths and injuries it prevents. With this in mind, we need to ask, is there now increased access to firearms in Ontario to account for these spikes in gun violence?

There has not yet been an analysis that allows us to answer this question. In a country with gun control, a policy that has helped maintain public safety for so long, we need to be certain that we take this increase in gun violence seriously. Experience has taught us that gun control measures can make a difference in preventing injury and death.

Those of us who are the parents of young men, or who have been young men, or have been the caregivers of young men in distress know what can happen when frustration takes over from a youth’s better nature. A young man with a gun can do much more harm with a firearm than with his fists, or a knife. We know from the crime statistics that more and more guns are aimed at others, but many of these young men also aim at themselves.

The point is that there are more victims. We often decry that police are not attuned to the mental health problems of those they arrest. However, those of us who are concerned with health need to provide some support to the police and other agents of the law with respect to the increasing number of guns in Canada. The health impact is increasing along with the crime rate. Those of us who specialize in adolescent health must begin to understand the law as it relates to our patients.

Mental Illness Awareness Week 2016 – What Now?

October 2-8, 2016 is Mental Illness Awareness Week(MIAW) in Canada. This week was established in 1992 by the Canadian Psychiatric Association and is now coordinated by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health (CAMIMH). The MIAW is a week held annually to raise awareness in Canada about mental illness and its impact on those who suffer from a mental illness and on those who love and care for them.

At the time it was introduced in 1992, stigma was still firmly entrenched in Canada, with attitudes toward those with mental illness still influenced by misconception and myth and not science or fact. This history of battling stigma in Canada can be found in this review by Heather Stuart, published in 2005.

The review traces the history of anti-stigma initiatives to the work of a Saskatchewan couple in the 1950’s. The Cummings developed an extensive program based on the health education approaches of the time to address the negative attitudes of the citizens of a Saskatchewan community toward the mentally ill. The program, however, had exactly the opposite effect to what was hoped for by the Cummings. According to the report,

“As the program grew in momentum, community reactions changed from interest, to anxiety, to outright hostility. It became apparent that people held fixed ideas about the causes of mental illness, the appropriate way of dealing with those with a mental illness, and the correct amount of social responsibility to assume.”

The report goes on to tell us that twenty years late, in the 1970’s, when other studies were beginning to show that Canadians were becoming more knowledgeable about mental illness and more accepting of those with mental illness, replicating the study done by the Cummings in the same small community showed no change in attitudes at all.

Progress on the frontlines of the anti-stigma campaign continued to be slow – a study in Quebec in 2001 found that 54% of those surveyed believed that people with Schizophrenia were “violent and dangerous”.

In the last fifteen years, those of us who work in mental health believe that we have seen positive developments in the anti-stigma campaign. For us, the proof is that more and more people are coming forward courageously to tell their personal stories of mental illness. When athletes like Clara Hughes and public figures like Margaret Trudeau describe their mental health struggles, some of the myths and misconceptions about mental illness can be broken down.

With a change in attitude, however, comes an increased demand for treatment and support. However, our health human resources still are not ready for this change. Many of us were trained at a time when our career choices were as denigrated as our patients’ illnesses. In fact, there are many who still characterize psychiatrists as not being “real doctors” and mental health workers in various professions earn less than their counterparts in other areas of medical practice. For example, Emergency Room Nurse Practitioners earn in the $100k range while Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners earn an average of $15k per year less. Psychiatrists make less than other physician specialties. There are many reasons to consider careers in other areas of healthcare.

At this point, in 2016, having been able to change some peoples’ attitudes toward mental illness, might it be reasonable to take a long, hard look at how we support those with mental illness? If people require Cognitive Behaviour Therapy every few weeks, should they have to require a letter for their employer? I don’t believe you’d need this if you were being treated for Diabetes or Heart Disease. Might we begin to think about prevention, since it’s well-established that there are conditions and circumstances that foster improved mental health?

Is it possible yet to move from awareness to action? Or will that take over sixty years also?