December 2015 – ALBERTA, Canada – Jesse Seibel of Whitecourt, Alberta, used to wake up every day at 3am, fully rested and ready to work. Having labored in the northern oil patch since his teens, just like his father, the tattooed and pierced wire-liner had grown oddly appreciative of the work’s long hours and hard labor. At 26, Seibel, who never finished high school, was earning as much as $5,000 a month threading electrical cables into reservoirs, enough to live comfortably and never miss paying rent and child support. Then, last February, he was sent on a three-day stint, not knowing that his employer was preparing his termination papers. He learned that he’d been laid off along with others days later. Within months, he and his girlfriend were homeless and moving into his parents’ house.
Now he’s $7,000 behind on child support payments. “I tried so hard to do it on my own, be a good father – the guy who goes to work every day and earns his money,” he says. “It’s very depressing.” Seibel’s represents one of 40,000 Alberta oil jobs lost since the price of petroleum plummeted late last year. According to Petroleum Labour Market Information, 185,000 will have been lost by spring, as a result of the market crash. But just two years ago, life in Canada’s energy hub was different: Alberta accounted for an incredible 87% of the country’s new net jobs, according to Statistics Canada, and more and more people were moving west for work. Today, unemployment is creeping to 2008 levels, employment insurance beneficiaries have doubled, and the once economic powerhouse is in the throes of a potential mental health crisis.
Between January and June, suicides spiked 30% compared to 2014. At this rate, 654 Albertans will have killed themselves this year, an unprecedented number for a region that already had the second highest suicide rates amongst the 10 provinces. Only Saskatchewan, another energy-dependent region, has a higher rate, and it’s seen 19% more suicides this year. In a widely circulated story this week, the CBC correlated Alberta’s suicides with economic recession. Numerous media have followed, including one conservative publication that’s gone as far as to blame the environmental plans of the province’s new leftist government, but there’s no evidence to support this, says Mara Grunau of Canada’s Centre for Suicide Prevention director.
“Research says that for every 1% increase in unemployment, we will see a 0.79% increase in suicide rates, but it takes two years [for the data to come through],” she says, pointing to a 2009 study of the European economic crises. Thus, she says, the real fallout of high unemployment is yet to come. Representatives of four city distress lines haven’t noticed call volumes increasing by more than a few percentage points, but anecdotally several mental health professionals are reporting increased counseling needs. “The issues folks are presenting with are far more complex in times past and we are seeing an increase in financial issues,” says Joan Roy, executive director of the Calgary Distress Centre.
An Edmonton social worker specializing in clinical crises intervention says he’s noticed a sharp increase in suicides after oil prices bottomed out. “And as we approach Christmas of course it gets worst,” says Leonard McEwan. He’s beginning to see many patients who are people in their early 20s to 50s directly or indirectly employed in the oil patch. “I talked to several people who’ve been laid off after going through various concession to try to keep their job, but the economy turned too quickly,” says McEwan. “Now they’re having to downsize, changing cities and dispose of all their toys, like their big trucks and Ski-doos, but nobody wants to buy that stuff because they can’t afford it either.” “It’s very depressing,” says Seibel, who’s still unemployed despite sending several hundreds of resumes, including to McDonalds, where he was told he was overqualified.
Three in four Alberta suicides are male and the vast majority are under 55. Blackmore believes many of the recent cases to be young, male workers living high-risk lifestyles, often in work camps, where they “fly-in/fly-out” for up to 24 days at a time. –Guardian