09/28/2012 05:37 EDT | Updated 11/28/2012 05:12 EST

Calgary symposium says stronger community support key to preventing suicide

CALGARY - It's the dark side of Alberta's booming economy.

In the land of oil and money, unemployment and tax rates are low, the economy is strong and the population continues to grow. There's also an almost obsessive pride in a strong work ethic and keeping your nose to the grindstone.

But Alberta also has the distinction of having one of the highest suicide rates in Canada. While the national average in 2010 was 10.2 deaths per 100,000 people, in Alberta it was 12.4. Alberta was third behind Quebec and Saskatchewan.

"Alberta has one of the highest suicide rates in Canada and part of it, we think, is that Albertans seem to have a real can-do attitude, we're hard workers, we're going to put our head down and get'er done and we're reluctant to ask for help," said Patti Restoule, co-chair of the Alberta Health Services steering committee on suicide prevention.

"There's a lot of stress and anxiety and depression that people are walking around with and there's a real stigma around trying to get help. We're kind of thinking that could be why Alberta has one of the highest rates."

Suicide claims more lives in Alberta each year than more openly discussed issues such as car crashes, homicides and AIDS.

Restoule spoke Friday at a suicide prevention conference, which focused on the need for community support to prevent people from killing themselves.

Although aboriginal youth have the highest suicide rate in Canada, men in the 45 to 65 age group place second.

Author and mental health advocate Lee Horbachewski began suffering with depression after the birth of her second daughter in 2004. After three suicide attempts, she finally received the help she needs and has been speaking out about her experiences.

She said she was lucky she was able to find help because others in Alberta are not.

"We're driven with the stigma of mental illness and being in a dark place. It's looked upon as negative and weak. There's a fear of being judged," she said.

"Until recently I was very prominent on Twitter and Facebook and I would daily get between five to 10 private messages of someone saying, 'I don't know where to go.' There needs to be more support systems, more community focus to really talk about all of this."

Vancouver psychologist Darien Thira has spent the past 20 years working exclusively in First Nation communities trying to prevent suicides.

"Suicide doesn't belong in aboriginal communities. It's something that came with (colonization). The results we're seeing, whether it's violence or addiction or suicide, they're just natural results from terrible, historical wounds," said Thira.

A July 2001 joint federal government and Assembly of First Nations report on preventing suicides among First Nations youth found suicide occurs roughly five to six times more often among aboriginal youth than non-aboriginal youth in Canada.

The report cited federal health statistics comparing First Nations and non-aboriginal suicide rates from 1989-1993 for newborn to 14 and 15 to 24 years old. It concluded suicide rates for young aboriginal men were extremely high.

"I'm not particularly interested in the causes of suicide because we already know what they are," said Thira.

"What I'm interested in is how are communities showing their resilience? How are individuals proving themselves stronger than suicide and how can we help more and more individuals and communities take a stand and drive it out of their lives?"