Corey Hirsch and Chris Gardner: It’s time to stop turning our collective backs on people in mental health crisis

Opinion: A system of support, intervention and help must be there whenever and wherever someone reaches out, asking for help to make it just one more day

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This year, about 4,000 Canadians will die by suicide. That’s 4,000 families, friendship circles, workplaces and schools left behind to pick up the pieces, to struggle with the whys and the hows and to grieve their immeasurable loss.

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We know that grief all too well.

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For Corey, it was the 2018 suicide of his girlfriend, a woman who once told him that she prayed every night “to make it through one more day.” Sadly, the night came when she could no longer deal with the lies her mind was telling her. She was in pain, not weak, but there was no help when she needed it.

For Chris, it was the suicide of his father, which shaped Chris’s childhood and set his life on a completely different trajectory. A half century ago was not a time when mental health was openly discussed or treatments readily available. There was no hope or help for people in crisis.

This shared experience of losing a loved one led us both to dedicate considerable time and energy to ending the stigma around mental health and suicide. Our backgrounds could not be more different — a professional hockey player who played in the gold medal hockey game for Team Canada at the 1994 Winter Olympics, and a law school graduate who spent a decade working in finance in Asia who now advocates for the men and women who make their living in construction.

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Corey shared his personal story battling with obsessive compulsive disorder and his own struggles with suicide in a ground-breaking article published in 2017 in The Players’ Tribune, aptly titled Dark, Dark, Dark, Dark, Dark. Corey’s new book, The Save of My Life, goes deeper.

Chris, as president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association (ICBA), told his father’s story publicly for the first time last year when launching ICBA’s new mental health and wellness program for construction workers.

Corey and Chris came together a year ago and embarked on a provincewide speaking tour that is now going to cities across Canada. They have spoken to more than 30 gatherings of business leaders, contractors, construction professionals and members of the public.

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A male-dominated stoic culture defines both the National Hockey League and the construction industry. And the numbers are sobering: 75 per cent of all suicide deaths are men, and in Canada one male takes their life every three hours.

To make a dent in these statistics, we need both the federal and provincial governments to step up and make real, meaningful investments in mental health services. No level of government has all the answers. But they can do so much more to ensure that there is help before, during and after the moment of crisis. Too often, the warning signs are missed by a health care system that is already strained to the breaking point.

A major step forward was recently accomplished when the CRTC announced it would implement Prince George-Cariboo MP Todd Doherty’s plan to designate 9-8-8 as an emergency phone number for those contemplating suicide. As a teenager, Doherty lost his best friend to suicide and has dedicated himself to improving services for those struggling with mental health.

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But more is needed. Coming out of the mentally gruelling COVID-19 global pandemic, our health care system is overwhelmed and parts of it are collapsing.

It all comes down to government priorities. The B.C. government currently spends $25 million annually on its Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, an amount that is budgeted to stay flat through 2025. To say that this is just a drop in the proverbial bucket would be understating the obvious.

The harsh reality is that we find ourselves in the middle of a profound mental health crisis; we see it every day in our schools, our places of work and on our streets. The consequences of grossly underfunded treatment resources are the loss of far too many lives and the destruction of families and communities.

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Government must dedicate more resources to finding and equipping psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors, therapists, nurses and other mental health professionals.

However, all too often these caregivers are overwhelmed, struggling to deal with a crisis that is unfolding before their eyes.

A system of support, intervention and help must be there whenever and wherever someone reaches out, asking for help to make it just one more day. For far too long, government has failed to make the investments required to build that network. It’s time to stop turning our collective backs on people in crisis and make the investments required to save people, families and communities.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call 1-800-784-2433 (1-800-SUICIDE). Assistance is available in more than 140 languages.

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Corey Hirsch is a former National Hockey League goaltender and mental health advocate. His book The Save of My Life is being released Oct. 11 by HarperCollins. Chris Gardner is president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association. 

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