Friday, 14 December 2012

Alberta's Suicide Prevention History Project

     Did you know that during the 1980’s Lethbridge was a leader in suicide prevention?? It is this fact that prompted Just Group, a group devoted to ‘innovative community development’, to begin ASPHP; the Alberta Suicide Prevention History Pilot Project in 2008. This is a project created for the purpose of collecting, recording, sharing and preserving Alberta’s rich history in suicide prevention. Just Group finished off the project by donating all of the physical papers collected and reports created to the Galt Archives, which is where we come in to the picture. The donation was received two years ago by the former archivist Greg Ellis who is in the picture below on the left. New acquisitions take a while to process, and now that this one has been, we thought we’d share a bit about it.

     It all began in 1973, when Dr. Menno Boldt, a professor in the University of Lethbridge’s Sociology Department, visited a First Nations reserve. The ASPHP report describes how he was working “with a student to develop a proposal for the development of a Native American Studies Department at the University of Lethbridge”. While he was there he noticed six fresh graves had been recently added to their cemetery. “He was concerned by a small community having 6 deaths in a few days and made inquiries. He found out that at least three of these deaths were suicides”. This information must have made an impact on Dr. Menno, because suicide prevention became forefront in his activities for many years to follow. Soon after this experience, he wrote the provincial government for funding for research on suicide rates, particularly in First Nations Peoples, and was granted permission to do just that.

     The social atmosphere at this time was quite different than it is now, when it came to suicide. Historically, suicide has been more of a taboo than a tragedy. Up until 1972, only a year before Boldt began his research, attempted suicide was still a crime. Whenever feasible, suicide was reported as a “misadventure”. Suicide rates from before the 1970s have always been assumed as lower than reality because of this. At the time Boldt began his research, suicide was only beginning to become something people could talk about rather than cover up, which made learning to prevent it more possible.

     This flame that had begun in Boldt grew to a blaze as many in Lethbridge joined the fight. Lethbridge Family Services created a help line through the Samaritans (a group that operates a help line throughout Europe). A help line statistically lowers the suicide rate in the area by at least 5%. It was only in 2003 that the Samaritans help line closed in Lethbridge to transform into a province-wide help line.

     Meanwhile, what had began as research for Boldt turned into the “Alberta Task Force on Suicides”; the first Albertan government supported group created to fight against the steadily growing rates of suicides. Boldt was chair. This group, located in Lethbridge, lobbied tirelessly for a more proactive government support. This lobbying transformed into the ‘Albertan Model’, a suicide prevention approach created with the help of Dr. Robert Arms, also a University of Lethbridge professor in the Psychology Department.

From left to right: Dr. Jean Collins, founder of the Samaritans; Dr. Menno Boldt, President; Dr. Robert Arms, UofL Psychologist; Tom Wickersham, City of Lethbridge Firefighter (future Fire Chief and Alderman); Mary Oordt,VicePresident, CMHA Board member; BobTarleck, teacher, Alderman and future Mayor of Lethbridge.

     The presence of other organizations to support suicide prevention rose, like the Canadian Suicide Prevention Foundation and the SPPAC. Lethbridge held the first suicide awareness week and the first door to door campaign in Canada in 1983. Suicide prevention has become a world wide effort. The public awareness and the social understanding have expanded exponentially. Lethbridge played a key role in this. As Alberta and Canada became more proactive in suicide prevention, Lethbridge’s role has decreased. But our role in the humble beginnings of suicide awareness and prevention in Alberta are remembered.

     The world has made huge steps in suicide prevention. However we still have a long way to go. Approximately 3,500 suicide deaths take place in Canada every year. Around every forty seconds someone in the world takes their life. The fight is not over, not even close.

     There is an excellent blog with every detail of the Alberta’s Suicide Prevention History Project at:, if you are interested.

     The statistics are taken from StatCanada. The quotes are taken directly from The ASPHP report and/or their blog.

     By Steffi Reynolds.

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