A response from the Ministry of Health on suicide bereavement and support services in BC

In light of the fact that today is World Health Day with the focus on depression, I would like to share the response I received from the Ministry of Health regarding a letter that a group of suicide survivors, including myself, addressed to BC’s Minister of Health, various levels of the Canadian government and relevant organizations. The letter (below) basically was about making sure that SAFER, a suicide education and support service, is provided to all British Columbians. Its services, particularly bereavement counseling, has been reduced/limited to only residents of Vancouver.

It’s not a very encouraging response from the Ministry of Health regarding broadening suicide support and grief services outside Vancouver. On top of that, the link in the letter to find local services doesn’t work when I tried the online mapping tool (Update: the govt fixed the link after I contacted them). Also I think they don’t get that suicide bereavement support isn’t the same as “normal” bereavement support services due to the stigma around suicide and various issues related to it.

With the Prime Minister committing “$5 billion over the next ten years to support mental health initiatives“, I hope that part of this goes to suicide prevention and support/bereavement services particularly for person-to-person support… online resources and tools are not enough!

20 February 2017

Honourable Terry Lake

Minister of Health

PO Box 9050 Stn Prov Govt

Victoria, BC V8W 9E2

Subject: SAFER – a unique and essential service for all British Columbians

Dear Minister,

We are writing to show our support and request that SAFER (Suicide Attempt Follow-up Education & Research) continues to be provided for all British Columbians.

We have been using the grief counselling services at SAFER since the death of our loved ones by suicide. For many of us, we felt lost and unsure about how to handle our grief, as well as the challenges to our mental health after such a tragic event.

Understanding, processing and accepting the grief from a death is already difficult as it is. Death attributed to suicide is even more challenging given the unique context and stigma associated with it. When we found SAFER, we were relieved to discover that BC has such a unique and essential service. Early on, many of us were reluctant to accept or even discuss our loved one’s death. With SAFER, it was a live-saver to be able to talk and receive counselling about surviving suicide and the grief in a safe and supportive environment. SAFER continues to help us to understand, accept, and move through the feelings, emotions, and conditions surrounding grief from suicide.

Unfortunately from our understanding, due to resources and organizational restructuring, SAFER has now limited their services and outreach geographically to only residents of Vancouver. Most of us do not live in Vancouver, but in other parts of the Lower Mainland. In addition to only servicing people living in Vancouver, it has come to our attention that SAFER counselling is limited to one year following intake and people have been turned away from this essential service.

While an average of 10 Canadians die from suicide every day, the loved ones, family members, friends, coworkers etc. who have to live with the grief number much more. SAFER provides a safe and accepting place for survivors to process this grief. It also provides essential services such as counselling and education to help people living with mental health issues, thoughts of suicide and those who have to live through suicide death.

We hope that SAFER will be able receive the support and resources it needs to continue and expand its services for all British Columbians.

We look forward to your response.

4 April 2017

Dear Mr. Fung et al:

Thank you for your letter of February 20, 2017, requesting that the Suicide Attempt Follow-up Education and Research (SAFER) program expand to become available to all British Columbia residents. The Honourable Terry Lake, Minister of Health, has asked me to respond on his behalf and I apologize for the delay.

Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the loss of your loved ones. I understand that the grief following the suicide death of a loved one can be complicated and affects everybody differently.

While the supports provided by SAFER are well respected, we at the Ministry of Health also understand that health services need to be provided as close to home as possible in order to be accessible for all British Columbians. The Ministry is working with the health authorities to provide services to people within or near their communities through a model of primary care homes linked to specialized community care services. In alignment with this model, the health authorities have been reviewing their services. This has resulted in the redesign of some programs, including the changes made by Vancouver Coastal Health to SAFER.

As you are aware, the SAFER services are now focused on Vancouver area residents only. If needed, clients may review their needs with the SAFER program and plan their transition to other services after one year. These changes were made in order for the SAFER program to continue to provide core services and meet the demands of Vancouver area residents. To support the focus on Vancouver area residents only, the SAFER program refers people from outside of their catchment area to local services available in the person’s community.

SAFER continues to offer education and clinical expertise supports to the health authorities. In many communities throughout the province, there are suicide-specific bereavement support services, while in other communities people attend general bereavement support services or participate in individual counselling. Approximately 90 local mental health centres operated by the health authorities provide access to mental health treatment and counselling services and, if required, connect families to local community support services. You can locate these services through our online map tool, found at http://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/health/managing-your-health/mental-health-substance-use/find-services-near-you.

Recently the government announced a mental health digital hub, which has been developed to help British Columbians find the services and supports closest to them. This new resource focuses on better integration and access to services by bringing together over 6,000 services from over 450 providers throughout the province. Information about mental health services in various communities, including grief support services, can be accessed through this hub at http://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/mental-health-support-in-bc.

The Ministry recognizes that the SAFER program provides a specialised and unique service for Vancouver residents bereaved due to a suicide death. People in other areas of the province may go through their family physician or the local mental health centre for assessment and treatment if the impact of the suicide death has resulted in significant mental health and/or substance use problems. Referral to local community based bereavement support services may also be provided if appropriate.

In addition, the Ministry is currently working with all of the health authorities to review and improve services for people at risk of suicide and their families, including reviews of suicide prevention, intervention and follow-up support services.

Thank you once again for writing to share your support for the SAFER program. Input and experience like yours is highly valued as we strive to continuously improve our health care system and ensure that all British Columbians receive the standard of care they deserve. I appreciate the opportunity to respond.


Robin Pascoe



Honourable Terry Lake

Honourable Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada

Honourable Jane Philpott, Minister of Health, Canada

Honourable Christy Clark, Premier

Michael Marchbank, President and CEO, Fraser Health Authority

Mary Ackenhusen, President and CEO, Vancouver Coastal Health

Laura Case, Chief Operating Officer, Vancouver Coastal Health

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