Tonight, Regional Council decided in a 23-4 vote to install barriers on a piece of infrastructure where the community has been impacted by six deaths in as many months.
Again, for those who are curious, here is what I said at Regional Council tonight during the debate about the barriers. Some of it is repetitive of a blog entry on this website of a couple of weeks ago. Some of it is repetitive of what I said at Public Works Committee last week. Some of it was new tonight, including the e-mail from Taylor
As noted on the agenda, we were supposed to have a delegation from Taylor, but she couldn’t be here tonight, because she’s currently staying at the Niagara Health System St. Catharines site. She asked me to share this with you:
“As unfortunate as it is, we in Niagara have reached a point of crisis. No doubt about it, something MUST be done. One of the most controversial solutions to the region’s deaths is barriers being installed on a piece of infrastructure. You most likely have already heard everyone else’s opinions on the matter. “They’re too costly.” “They’re not aesthetically pleasing.” The government, the community, and others have interesting views, but have you heard this one? One of someone who’s been torn off that piece of infrastructure? One of someone who used to be against these barriers? One of someone who’s chronically suicidal? Mine?
My name is Taylor and I am a 19-year-old woman residing at the St. Catharines Hospital. I have unfortunately been brought here far too many times, but that’s better than the alternative. That brings me to the topic of this piece of infrastructure, and the chance for it to obtain death-preventing barriers. Long story short, if it’s going to save a life, then what are we waiting for? Although it’s not only about me, had the bridge had barriers at the time of my most recent event, the police most certainly would not have been taking me off of it. The thought of jumping would have severely decreased, to a point of me finding help or something more productive to do with my emotions. If this is what happens to me, the great thing is that it happens to others. Yes, these emotionally disregulated individuals could indeed find a different height, utilise a different means of self-harm, but they also may not. These barriers would and could provide someone struggling with the time they need to safely think, reach out, or do something good. Barriers give people a chance to get help, or have help brought to them. Barriers give HOPE. If you are truly pro-people living, then this is the shot you should take. The shot of positivity in a negative time. If suicides in Niagara begin to decrease, isn’t that what we want? I think so. Just to reiterate, choose HOPE, and save a life.
And, now, through you, Chair, for some comments of my own:
When I was 15 years old, I tried to die by suicide. In those moments, I wanted nothing more than for years of pain to stop. And this was the only way I knew to make that happen.
Fortunately, someone found me and called an ambulance, and after a few days in hospital to recover, the medical team got me the mental health support I had no idea existed and that no one in my life noticed I needed, even though I’d been having panic attacks for months and was clearly depressed.
Six years ago yesterday, I received a phone call that literally dropped me to the floor.
My younger sister was dead. I knew immediately, but it would later be confirmed that Erica died by suicide. Erica had been seeing mental health professionals for years – beginning after the first time she tried to die by suicide – and I had rushed to her nearly a dozen times when she’d disclosed she was considering suicide. She didn’t call me this final time.
On December 24, 2018, I learned that another member of my family had tried a few months earlier to die by suicide.
Following a wait of several weeks and multiple phone calls and appointments to get the right referrals, she is now receiving the help she needs.
One of the common threads among all three of these experiences? Mental health support came after trying to die by suicide.
Here’s what I know for sure: In the moment that someone is thinking about dying, there is no thought as to what medical or other supports exist for them. There is no thought as to how their death will affect their family, friends, and community. The pain is so intense and runs so deep that there isn’t room for other thoughts.
There is no question in my mind that installing barriers is the right thing to do. To be extremely frank, if Council decides to not install the barriers, then any future deaths from that piece of infrastructure must weigh heavily on our collective conscience. We will have made a decision that permits the problem to continue; that permits people to continue to die.
I said it at Public Works Committee last week and I’ll say it again: Some people who are opposed to the barriers have said this is an “emotional issue,” possibly in an effort to dismiss it as being irrational. But here’s the thing: it is an emotional issue. It should be an emotional issue. People are suffering and dying. However, it being an emotional issue does not preclude the ability to make the right and rational decision.
It is likely that I will forever be advocating for more and better mental health supports for our communities. We desperately need a national mental health strategy. We desperately need appropriate levels of healthcare funding from the province to ensure that people are getting the mental health support they need.
But there is more than one answer to this problem. We need more mental health supports and we need barriers.
Barriers will prevent people from dying by suicide at that location. The idea that they will just step out into traffic or walk to another location or find another way is false. The evidence bears this out. Barriers will provide the pause they need in that moment to seek support or otherwise interrupt their line of thinking.
Barriers will work because many people reach that point without the ability or other resources to seek mental health support, or they are receiving mental health support, but it’s failing them for one reason or another. Many people try to or do die by suicide before they ever receive mental health support. Sometimes, it’s because they’re afraid to ask for support; sometimes, it’s because the support is not available; sometimes, it ends up being this kind of drastic thinking that makes people realize they need the support.
The idea that we shouldn’t put barriers anywhere because we can’t put them everywhere is beyond comprehension. There are other locations in the Niagara region where people die by suicide. Some of them are properties or pieces of infrastructure that the Region of Niagara owns; however, the two most commonly cited locations are not. And because the province won’t do anything about those two locations can not mean that we turn a blind eye to a piece of infrastructure we can do something about.
Would $4 million be well-spent on mental health services and programs? Yes, it absolutely would. However, the money we are discussing for the barriers is capital money; infrastructure money. We are not able to spend it in the operational budget.
We have public health officials, including a Medical Officer of Health, who have provided us with pages and pages of evidence that barriers work. In Toronto, for instance, the barriers not only stopped deaths by suicide on a particular piece of infrastructure, but the overall rate of suicide decreased. That is just one example.
As politicians, we are not and cannot be expected to be experts on every issue about which we have to make decisions. That’s what we have skilled and experienced staff for. That said, in this particular case, if it is difficult for some on Council or in the community to believe what we are being told by staff, there is ample academic, peer-reviewed research that is accessible through a simple internet search.
Suggesting that data can be made to say anything you want it to say is lazy. It’s a lazy (and incorrect) excuse for not engaging with the data. One can visually represent data in a way that is misleading, to be sure, but those who are paying close attention will not be misled. In fact, an ethical researcher engaged in rigorous research may find that the data doesn’t say what they anticipated it would, and they will still present the data accurately, lest their research be debunked when it cannot be replicated. The data says what the data says. It is up to us to understand the basic tenets of the scientific method and the application of evidence-based policy making and – in the absence of contradictory scientific evidence – make the decisions that are supported by the evidence.
Emotion is not weakness, but if you want to talk about where feelings do and do not have a place…. If we do not base our decisions on the evidence, then we are essentially deciding to base our decisions on feelings, rejecting the science in favour of our guts; by that standard, nothing is sound policy and reasonable decision-making becomes a pipe-dream.
In Niagara, we need to install literal barriers because there are so many figurative ones to addressing mental health concerns. And, yes, probably all future pieces of this type of infrastructure should be constructed with barriers included. At the same time, we need to advocate for more and better mental health services and programs. Where it is within our mandate to do so, we need to maintain and implement mental health programs and services.
There is more than one answer to this problem, and we can employ more than one strategy to resolve the problem to the extent we are able. We also need the provincial and federal governments to step up in a serious and meaningful way.
We have an opportunity tonight to make a decision that will save lives. Please join me in doing that.