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Health report fails to analyze root causes

Province’s suicide data report crunches numbers, but leaves out analysis of social causes related to suicide..

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If Freddie Mercury were alive, I'd ask his opinion of the Nova Scotia government's 51-page report on suicide that was finally released last week. The Queen singer, who died of AIDS in 1991, might thrust out his hairy chest, give me his trademark, buck-toothed smile, and belt out "Don't Try Suicide": "So you think it's the easy way out? You think you're gonna slash your wrists this time? Don't do that---you got a good thing going now. Don't do it, don't do it, don't!"

Mercury's 1980 hit takes a snappy, simplistic look at suicide. But it fits in squarely with the idea that suicide is a tragic waste. In November 2006, a provincial report pointed out that suicide and attempted suicide are among the top three causes of death and hospital stays for those 16 and older. It added that suicide strains emergency health, medical and psychiatric services and costs the provincial economy an estimated $100 million every year.

Back in 2006, government officials set out a seven to 10-year suicide prevention plan. As a first step, they commissioned a report from experts at Dalhousie University assessing trends among age and income groups, comparing regional statistics and analyzing suicide risk factors. That report was supposed to be released in the winter of 2007, but the final draft wasn't completed until last fall. Two months ago, when the report had still not appeared, The Coast raised questions about why provincial officials were so slow in releasing it. We quoted the report's author, Peter Nestman, interim director of Dal's Population Health Research Unit.

"We came up with a draft report, and it was, I guess controversial," Nestman told us. They "asked me to provide some analysis of the statistics and so forth, and so I did that, and the government wanted some of that stuff out, so I took that out." That was in May. Now that the report has finally been made public, Nestman refuses to say more, adding that the document speaks for itself.

OK. On page 37, it states that people with the lowest incomes had a significantly higher suicide death rate compared to those in the highest income brackets. Interesting, but what about Nova Scotia's below-the-poverty-line welfare rates? Or its abysmal record of providing affordable housing? Could these be factors in suicide? The report says it wasn't possible to analyze any government programs or services in relation to suicide. Not welfare, not housing, not mental health services, not the prison system, not the police or the courts.

OK. The report says drug and alcohol abuse increases the likelihood of suicide, especially among people suffering from depression and anxiety. Could the province's policy of making alcohol more available by extending liquor store and bar hours be a factor in suicide? And what about the urgent need for more addiction treatment services in Nova Scotia? And what about the relationship of prescription drugs to suicide? "Prescription medication was initially examined," the report says, "however, results were not deemed to be evaluable due to incomplete data."

OK. What about suicide rates among First Nations people or young lesbians, gays or bisexuals? A 2006 report says that in some aboriginal communities, suicide rates are three to five times higher than in the general population, while lesbian, gay and bisexual young people are three times more likely to die from suicide. But the report released last week merely notes in its typically bureaucratic language: "At the time of this report, there were no datasets available that could be used to analyze these cohorts."

OK. The report does contain interesting statistics including ones showing that overall suicide rates seem to be declining slightly. But its lack of analysis raises many questions about the province's overall commitment to solving the complex and difficult problems associated with suicide. As Freddie Mercury once sang, "Don't try suicide, You're just gonna hate it. Don't try suicide. Nobody gives a damn."

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