Calculating the cost of suicide

It's the second most common cause of death for young males. Why does cancer get more attention?


(Photo: Richard Allen/Image Source/CP)

Big-budget action-movie maker Tony Scott—director of such blockbusters as Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II and Crimson Tide—committed suicide late last month by throwing himself off a Los Angeles bridge. It was, as most suicides are, a shock to all. Scott was in the midst of many new projects: actively casting one movie, approving special effects for another and even planning a Top Gun sequel. Given his sure touch at the box office, his loss will likely hit Hollywood’s bottom line as hard as it has his family, friends and fans.

Setting aside the obvious personal tragedy of suicide, Scott’s death lays bare its economic cost in terms of lost productivity, talent and workplace distress. While the taboo on mental health issues has been lifted to a modest degree in recent years—Bell Canada’s $50-million Let’s Talk Mental Health campaign deserves particular notice—suicide remains a topic deserving of much greater attention from the business community.

Suicide is a demographic nightmare; it’s a leading killer of young people, and males in particular. For men up to age 45, suicide is the second most common cause of death in Canada, after accidents. More men middle-aged and younger kill themselves than die from cancer, heart disease, homicide, HIV or diabetes. For women under 45, it’s a top-three killer. Among certain racial groups—young aboriginals in particular—the numbers are even more troubling.

Suicide should thus be seen as a significant factor in shortening the lives of Canada’s young working-age population. If we’re concerned about worker-to-retiree ratios and the future prospects for pension plans and health-care programs, we should care a lot more about suicide.

Compare the social statures of cancer and suicide. Cancer receives massive attention and funding from the corporate world. All this attention has played a role in the impressive 4% drop in cancer’s share of death over the past decade. But while cancer can strike anyone, it’s predominantly a disease of age. This doesn’t make cancer prevention any less worthy, but it does suggest businesses with an enlightened self-interest in the health and productivity of their most energetic workers should devote at least as much attention to mental health as cancer—probably more.

“The moment when someone is getting ready to enter the workforce is also the time they’re most vulnerable to the onset of a mental illness,” observes James Hughes, president of the Graham Boeckh Foundation in Montreal, which funds research into mental illness and suicide. “By not dealing with this effectively, we deprive the economy of a lifetime of employment from some of our youngest and best workers.”

So what should the corporate sector do? A good start might be a more practical approach to workplace productivity. Consider the effort that goes into proper desk and chair adjustment in offices around the country. Yet mental health—not carpal tunnel syndrome—is the No. 1 cause of disability in Canada. Make sense?

The risk of suicide is not distributed randomly. Canadian research identifies many occupations with higher-than-average suicide rates, including nursing, logging, trucking and farming. Greater attention to physical safety issues saw the B.C. forestry industry reduce fatal accidents from 43 a year in 2005 to six in 2010. Why not make the same effort in suicide prevention, and for the same reasons?

There’s also plenty of room for unconventional approaches to this awkward topic. Colorado takes aim at male reticence to seek help with its deliberately humorous website mantherapy .org. “We’ll be getting off our keisters and tackling feelings like anger, stress, sadness, substance abuse and even suicidal thoughts head-on using manly techniques,” declares website host Dr. Rich Mahogany gravely, while providing visitors with many useful resources. He then fillets a fish. A few stigmas get busted along the way.

Suicide is a difficult topic. But it’s one with demographic, economic and workplace significance beyond the private dimension. It deserves more attention.

Peter Shawn Taylor is a writer specializing in economic issues