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‘Need your prayers’: The youth-suicide crisis gripping a Canadian community

A state of emergency is declared in a Canadian aboriginal community as mental health officials are sent in to address a rash of suicide attempts. (Video: Reuters)
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There’s a crisis gripping a small indigenous community in Northern Ontario: The Attawapiskat First Nation, home to fewer than 2,000 people, is struggling with a suicide epidemic.

In October, a 13-year-old girl committed suicide in Attawapiskat; since then, according to the Canadian Press, there have been 100 more attempted suicides — including 28 in March.

On Saturday night alone, officials said, 11 people attempted to take their own lives in Attawapiskat, prompting the chief and council to declare a state of emergency.

“I’m asking friends, government, that we need help in our community,” Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Bruce Shisheesh said, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. “I have relatives that have attempted to take their own lives … cousins, friends.”

There have been more suicide attempts since the chief and the council declared a state of emergency Saturday.

A scheduled Monday-night forum for young people and mental-health workers was canceled when multiple people — including one as young as 7 — were taken to the hospital after apparently planning a group suicide, relief nurse Crystal Culp told the CBC, adding that some of the youth “had already initiated steps to self-harm.”

Anna Betty Achneepineskum of Nishnawbe Aski Nation told the Ottawa Citizen that police detained 13 youths after learning of a suicide pact and had them placed under watch at the local hospital.

“It is very tense,” she told the newspaper.

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The youth, according to the CBC, spoke with mental health counselors “about their feelings of despair” and said bullying and “a lack of things to do” were among the factors that made them suicidal.

“It hasn’t been easy to be strong,” Shisheesh, the Attawapiskat First Nation chief, said in an interview with the CBC. “It hasn’t been easy to stay positive because I keep thinking about our young people. And as a chief and as leaders here in our community, we don’t want to lose any youth.”

On Twitter, Shisheesh noted “the disturbing number of suicide attempts” and added: “Pray for Attawapiskat.”

Suicide has plagued Canada’s indigenous communities for decades. The leading cause of death among indigenous youths and adults younger than 45 is suicide and self-inflicted injuries, according to Health Canada.

Indigenous youths face a number of suicide risk factors, as outlined by Canada’s Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy. They include poverty, unemployment, substance addiction, abuse and a family or community history of suicide. Aboriginal youths also face violence and conflict with the law. For centuries, many of Canada’s native people were removed and placed into residential schools, where they were forced to learn English and drop native practices and languages. Researchers have cited this inter-generational trauma, passed down over centuries, as another suicide risk factor.

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“We talk about things like historical trauma as if it’s events that have happened in the past,” researcher Gerald McKinley told the Canadian Medical Association Journal. “But the number of suicide completions [is] increasing steadily, decade over decade over decade. What’s happening [now] is new communities are joining in.”

People younger than 26 were involved in nearly half of the suicides committed by aboriginal people in Ontario between 1991 and 2013, according to a study by McKinley, a postdoctoral fellow at Toronto’s Center for Addiction and Mental Health.

On Wednesday, Ontario officials announced that up to $2 million will be used for suicide prevention, helping to pay for a youth center, four mental health workers, five nurses, two security staff members and evening clinical support, the CBC reported.

“The provincial government, the local band council and the community will hold a forum to develop a long-term plan to support the community to ensure the people of Attawapiskat, particularly youth, feel safe, respected and supported,” Ontario’s Health Minister Eric Hoskins and Children and Youth Services Minister Tracy MacCharles said in a joint statement, the CBC reported.

Small, remote communities such as Attawapiskat have long-standing issues that affect the mental health of their residents, Ontario Aboriginal Affairs Minister David Zimmer told the Canadian Press.

“They are very, very remote, they’re small, there’s no economy, there is a sense — especially among the younger people — of despair, a lack of opportunity and it leads to depression and anxiety and these sorts of things,” Zimmer said.

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Last month, the Pimicikamak Cree Nation in Manitoba also declared a state of emergency over attempted youth suicides, according to Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde.

“The situation facing the people of Attawapiskat is a national tragedy that demands immediate action,” Bellegarde said in a statement Monday — one day after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed concern about the suicide epidemic.

Tuesday, Canada’s House of Commons held an emergency debate about the Attawapiskat suicide crisis.

“This isn’t just particularly about Attawapiskat, it’s about who we are as Canadians and our whole nation,” Member of Parliament Charlie Angus said, according to the CBC. “The greatest tragedy is the image of these helpless communities, and these lost children.”

“When I think that there are communities in our country where … young people in groups are deciding that there is no hope for their future, we must do better, we have to find a way to go forward,” Minister of Health Jane Philpott said. “Tonight has to be a turning point for us as a country in order for us to decide together that we will do better.”

Attawapiskat has four health-care workers who lack specialized mental-health training, Shisheesh said.

“These four workers, crisis workers, are burned out,” Deputy Grand Chief Rebecca Friday said, according to the CBC. “They can’t continue working daily because of the amount of suicides [that] have happened. They’re backlogged.”

Additional resources have come to the community following the state-of-emergency declaration. The country’s health ministry dispatched 18 health workers, mental-health counselors and police to Attawapiskat, the CBC reported.

“Our government wants to assure First Nations that we are personally and directly engaged in the recent states of emergencies that have been declared,” reads a statement from Health Canada. “We have reached out to First Nations leadership over the past day to identify how we can work together to provide both immediate and long term help.”

Angus, the lawmaker who represents the Timmins-James Bay area of Ontario, said there had been more than 700 suicide attempts in the James Bay Region in the past few years.

“Why does it take a state of emergency to get a planeload of health-care workers into the community?” Angus said, according to the CBC.

There’s also a worry about the far-reaching impact so many suicides and attempts have on the tiny community. Clusters of such attempts can be contagious, leading to more attempts, Ian Manion, director of youth mental health research at Royal Ottawa Mental Health Center, told the Ottawa Citizen.

“There is no single suicide that can occur in a community like that that doesn’t ripple through the entire community,” Manion said.

At a community forum Tuesday, Carissa Koostachin, a 14-year-old from Attawapiskat, said her 13-year-old cousin, Sheridan Hookimaw, killed herself last year in part because she’d been bullied.

But, the CBC reported, “she says she doesn’t like to talk about why her cousin committed suicide, fearing that it could prompt others to follow her path.”

“If you keep talking about suicide, it’s going to make the other youth want to do it again,” Koostachin said.

“I don’t want to lose another one from suicide,” she said.

[This story has been updated.]


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