PETER CONRADI/Bullet News
As horrifying as the numbers are – and suicide numbers always are – they only tell part of the story and point to part of the problem.
Dr. Edgardo Perez, the Niagara Health System’s new head of psychiatry and addictions, is not surprised by the figures re-released by the Region this week and welcomes the opportunity they provide to delve deeply into the subject.
“This is a serious thing, but this is an indicator of other issues that we need to address,” said Perez. “Suicide is caused by many, many factors. All the way from having psychiatric issues to economic issues, and social issues. Even the values of the community come into play.”
The Region’s public health committee heard this week that 11 per cent of people 20 and older in Niagara try to kill themselves each year. That’s well ahead of the provincial average of 5.9 per cent. Under questioning from politicians, Niagara’s medical officer of health Dr. Valerie Jaeger said the date comes from a Statistics Canada study done five years ago. She added there are signs mental-health care in the region is actually taking some forward strides.
Still, it was her department’s report that identified mental health as the No. 1 challenge facing the region in 2013, and used the StatsCan study to back that up.
Perez, a leading expert in his field, said it is time for the region to get serious about dealing with suicide and the underlying factors.
“We know that communities undergoing changes – economic and social, where there is a lot of family disruption – can lead to more suicide attempts. The individual tends to drink and get depressed and try to kill themselves.
“So what can we do as a community? Each of us has a role. The medical system has a role, the community has a role and the social services have a role. All these things must come together. We must be able to identify those at risk, we must be able to get them treatment and we must look at the situation that caused the suicidal tendencies.”
In Niagara, for example, we have high unemployment. We also have significant underemployment – high paying jobs have been replaced by many with significantly lower wages. We deal with a high level of illiteracy. We have a high rate of chronic disease, such as cancer. Access to proper care has been difficult, not only for mental health but health in general. Perez says it all comes together to create a breeding ground for suicide.
“Why do we have these issues? How can we solve them? These are things we must examine. Suicide is a major public health problem all over the world. What can we do in the community that takes away some of the underlying factors? Can we train people to early identify the situation so the health-care system can intervene?”
The NHS hired Perez last year to head up a division that hadn’t even had a medical person at the helm for seven years. He’s recognized as a global leader in his fields, however, and the NHS is banking on him to revitalize an area that has been terribly under-serviced and ignored.
Perez speaks a lot about building relationships, within the community of mental-health professionals and with the patients who need attention. Many of them, he said, are unaware of the programs already offered in Niagara. He said one of his main jobs will be connecting patients with the caregivers.
“Not all of this has to be done by doctors, he said. “That may have been an old way of doing things. There are new ways for us to better use resources. To use them more efficiently and effectively I believe in linkages, in everyone working together. Many of the people who need help are not the ones who come to the hospital. We need to be in the community, reaching out to those people so we can help them.
“We have to work together and it takes a lot of leadership from public health and the mayors of the cities and the other politicians. It’s a long-term strategy. The short-term strategy is for public health to work to ensure that people who have psychiatric disorders get the quick assessment and intervention.”
He is optimistic that things will improve, thanks in no small part to the new hospital and the renewed effort by the NHS to support a mental-health program.
Perez said there are 13 psychiatrists working in Niagara. He would like to see at least 17. The new hospital in west St. Catharines, scheduled to open its doors in March, which will devote a considerable amount of space and resources to mental-health care.
Outpatient mental health services will continue to be offered at all NHS sites, inpatient care will be consolidated in St. Catharines, taking up some 81,000 square feet, making it the largest of any department in the hospital. He emphasized the system does not necessarily need more money, but needs to be utilized more efficiently.
“Sometimes we complain that we don’t have enough, but we have a lot of resources in different agencies for mental health. It’s a matter of how we come together and work together to put the emphasis on the client or the individual.
“We have so many different agencies and they all have management structures, and all these things need to be looked at. We have to develop a system that is more geared toward to patient … We have to leave egos behind and territories behind and come together and work together for the good of the whole.”