MRU to release suicide prevention framework
By Noel Harper, News Editor
In 2012, former Mount Royal University (MRU) President David Docherty created the President’s Task Force on Student Mental Health. The task force aimed to de-stigmatize mental health on campus and create a supportive environment for students, but one particular aspect of the conversation was missing.
“[The task force] really looked at mental health, kind of comprehensively. But at that point in time, it didn’t necessarily have a focus on suicide prevention, intervention and postvention,” says Rachelle McGrath, Director of Wellness Services at MRU.
McGrath is the chair of a steering committee working to develop a strategic framework for suicide prevention at MRU, formed in September 2020. The committee is composed of individuals from across the campus, including students, representatives, faculty and staff.
“It’s not necessarily just focused on student mental health, but it’s also looking at employees, because we know, whenever there is a sudden death or whenever there is a death by suicide, the impact that it has on employees as well as students across campus,” McGrath says.
Data from Alberta Health Services shows half of the approximate 7,300 emergency department visits for suicide attempts or self-harm in 2019 were made by those aged 24 and under. The data also says that up to 67 per cent of LGBTQ2S+ youth between the ages of 14 and 25 in the province had thoughts of suicide, and the suicide rate is five to six times higher for Indigenous youth than for non-Indigenous youth.
Overall, Alberta’s suicide rate in 2019 per 100,000 residents was 12.7, a slight decline from years past, according to the Centre for Suicide Prevention. Alberta is one of only four provinces and territories for which the Centre has 2019 data, along with Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and the Northwest Territories.
The framework, McGrath says, is in its early stages of development, with campus-wide consultation sessions being held in October and November 2020. The seven sessions were attended by 84 members of the MRU community, and future sessions are planned following the framework’s first draft.
“Really strongly, we heard the importance of equity, diversity and inclusion. We also heard the need for clear and consistent communication about available supports and resources, and having information … in a place that’s really easy to find or potentially in one centralized location,” says McGrath.
Other key takeaways from the sessions included the availability of suicide prevention training on campus and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health.
Daniel Major, a cellular and molecular biology student at MRU and member of the steering committee, says the sessions were based on a series of specific questions, posed to groups of students, staff or faculty members.
“How can we ensure that this framework has the most impact, that it’s used and adopted by the community? What are the best ways we can raise awareness of the resources already available to suicide prevention, intervention and postvention?” says Major, reading off examples of the questions asked.
Both Major and McGrath stress the importance of a comprehensive look at suicide prevention, encompassed of the three aforementioned aspects. This includes “postvention,” which takes place after a suicide and aims to provide support for the loved ones of a suicide victim, as defined by Canada’s Federal Framework for Suicide Prevention.
The work being done at MRU on suicide prevention is informed by work at the federal level. Major has the experience of sitting on a technical committee to develop the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s national standard for post-secondary mental health policies — the only undergraduate student from Western Canada to do so.
“The work I was doing on the committee was to help institutions design an encompassing framework for a mental health supportive approach to campus life for students,” Major says.
“Elements of that framework are going to be essential in informing the work that we’re doing on suicide prevention … we will certainly be using it as a way to refer and infer, and gain insight on some of the important components we need to make sure are present in our suicide prevention framework.”
Major says that the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the issue of suicide prevention, as students continue to be isolated from their campus communities.
“As a university, I think there has to be a heightened awareness … around the reality that a lot of people are hurting. A lot of people are feeling social isolation on a scale that didn’t exist,” he says.
“’Now more than ever’ is, I think, the motto that I would apply to mental health, and more specifically, suicide prevention strategies taken on by post-secondary institutions.”
McGrath concurs, saying that the pandemic has impacted the committee’s work in terms of isolation and lack of clarity around how to access mental health support remotely.
A draft version of the framework is planned for the end of March, following further consultation sessions focused on postvention and management.