Expanding suicide prevention programs will reach northern Albertans where they live

Casey Szmata wanted to end her own life after her daughter Morgan died by suicide in 2012. Love and support from her family and friends is what kept her alive.

Today, she’s working to make sure that kind of help is available for more people in northwestern Alberta — those who are struggling with suicidal thoughts and those who are grieving loved ones they have lost.

“If I can spare one family from going through what we went through, then it’s all worthwhile,” Szmata said during an interview in her home in Fairview, Alta., about 115 kilometres north of Grande Prairie.

Reason to smile 

After Morgan’s death, the family started a non-profit organization called Always Find a Reason to Smile. The group is a suicide awareness and prevention organization with a focus on helping others who are grieving death by suicide. 

“It was painfully obvious that we needed more resources,” Szmata said, recalling her own experience. “Myself, I travelled to Grande Prairie for bereavement services,” 

Szmata’s group supports families as far north as High Level who are grieving a death by suicide. She also fundraises for awareness initiatives and shares her family’s story with students at local schools.

“It’s been wonderful,” she said, “but it’s to the point now that I felt like we needed more and we can’t do that part of it.”

A sign along a highway.
The Szmata family started Always Find a Reason to Smile after Morgan’s death. (Luke Ettinger/CBC)

Tammy Monro, outreach director at the Resource Centre for Suicide Prevention in Grande Prairie, said the organization hopes to open a satellite office north of the Peace River in 2023.

But because an office is still a few months off from being a reality, Monro said the centre will start by bringing some programs to people living north of the city. “Right now what we’re looking at is just bringing in a couple of our programs that would be in the evening,” Monro said. 

Northern Alberta has the highest number of suicides in the province, according to the Centre For Suicide Prevention, a Calgary-based education centre that operates as a branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association. It analyzes data from Alberta’s chief medical examiner’ office.

In 2021, there were 182 deaths by suicide reported across the North health region — higher than 124 in Edmonton, 131 reported in Calgary, and 143 in the South. 

Monro said the statistics haven’t indicated an increase in suicides due to the pandemic but she she said there has been an uptick in help-seeking behaviour.

“Asking for supports or reaching out to different resources, maybe accessing therapists and support groups and that sort of thing,” she said. “We are seeing a huge increase in people accessing supports and services [but] not necessarily a huge increase in actual deaths.” 

Government support

Municipalities north of the Peace River are supporting the expansion of service. 

Robert Willing, reeve for the the Municipal District of Peace, said he hopes deaths will be prevented by bringing conversations about suicide prevention closer to home. 

“Edmonton is a five-hour drive. Grande Prairie is two hours. [For] some people it’s really hard for that to happen,” he said.

The Municipal District of Peace committed $3,000 to the satellite office initiative, Willing said. 

Meanwhile, officials in Grimshaw, Alta., about 60 kilometres east of Fairview, have identified an old administration building that could be used as an office space, said Brian Allen, the town’s chief administrative officer.

A beige vacant building in winter.
The former administration building in the town of Grimshaw could be the future home of the suicide prevention satellite office. (Luke Ettinger/CBC)

Szmata is happy to see some progress toward more resources preventing suicide in Morgan’s memory. 

“This is because of her. It’s not because of me,” Szmata said. 

“I hope she’s proud.”

If you or someone you know is struggling, here’s where to get help:

This guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health outlines how to talk about suicide with someone you’re worried about.

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