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The tragedy taking place in Canadian First Nations communities is both apparent and urgent, and it is equally imperative that Canadians address the challenges with empathy and understanding.  Given the political divide on Aboriginal policy in Canada, it is no surprise that the headlines of late have been marred with useless rhetoric from armchair pundits on how to address the recent wave of youth suicide attempts in our First Nations communities.

The thing to keep in mind is that elevated suicide rates in First Nations communities are the norm rather than the exception, and this is has been accepted by Canadian society as being commonplace for some time.  Actually, it hasn’t just been accepted, the issue has been systematically ignored.  Research going back to 1991 found that “from the ages of 10 to 29, Aboriginal youth on reserves are 5 to 6 times more likely to die of suicide than their peers in the general population”  (Kirmayer, 1994).

Earlier this year, Northern Saskatchewan residents in La Loche were devastated when a 17-year-old opened fire and gunned down 4 people with the intent for more destruction.  However, youth in this area are not new to tragedy, as the “community has struggled with the highest suicide rate in the province, and has a rate that is three times the national average” (CBC News, 2016).

In March, headlines surfaced after a wave of youth suicide attempts at the Pimicikamak Cree Nation in Manitoba – 140 attempts were recorded in a two week span.  The community itself has a population of 8,300.  Let’s conservatively assume that youth make up 35% of the total population in this community, though it is likely quite higher.  That would imply that in 14 days just under 5% of the youth population attempted to take their own lives.  What would be the provincial or national response if this was happening in a suburb of Vancouver or Toronto?

Earlier this month, national headlines focused on the Attawapiskat First Nations in Northern Ontario after a group of children were thwarted in an apparent suicide pact.  There was not enough care available for these children; the primary care beds that this group was referred to for evaluations were already filled with a previous wave of suicide attempts and could not accommodate everyone.

Politics aside, and there is plenty of it, this is not an aboriginal problem.  This is a Canadian crisis.  It is a dynamic and complex crisis that undoubtedly requires a multidisciplinary approach and must contain traditional healing mechanisms from First Nation communities.  There is plenty of research to suggest that when First Nations tradition and culture is embraced in the healing processes and daily activities, the prevalence of youth suicide diminishes significantly and in some cases is even eradicated (Halet, et al, 2007).

So what is the answer?  Simply deploying an acute response to what is so clearly a chronic societal issue will only lead to more headlines.  The reality is that this is a socioeconomic problem that extends far beyond any one individual’s mental health, and one which is in dire straits to be addressed by our political leaders.  The immediate challenge is to provide an appropriate mental health response to the level of risk as we would in virtually any other healthcare crises.

Inevitably, this requires a long term, proactive response of both local and external professional resources to sustain healthy frameworks well beyond the headlines in support these Canadian youth.

Chandler, M. J., & Lalonde, C. E. (2008). Cultural continuity as a protective factor against suicide in First Nations youth. Horizons, 10(1), 68-72.

Hallett, D., Chandler, M. J., & Lalonde, C. E. (2007). Aboriginal language knowledge and youth suicide. Cognitive Development, 22(3), 392-399.

Kirmayer, L. J. (1994). Suicide among Canadian aboriginal peoples.Transcultural Psychiatry, 31(1), 3-58.


About Carson McPherson

I am and do many things, but most importantly I am a father of two beautiful young girls and the proud husband to an amazing wife. As you'll see from my blog as time goes on, addiction has played a central role in my family for generations and has become the passion for which I base my work today. Enjoy and engage!

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