On World Suicide Prevention Day, Inuit leaders talk about the lack of support

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Mary Simon, the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Photo: Melissa Irwin.

Inuit and non-Inuit alike marked World Suicide Prevention Day on Parliament Hill on Sept. 9 with an urgent message to government to take action against the crisis facing Inuit communities, where the suicide rate is 11 times higher than that in the rest of Canada.

The major message was that a lack of support services in the north is leading to a huge number of Inuit, especially youth, taking their own lives. This marks the 5th year in a row that this day has been marked on the Hill by Inuit looking to draw attention to the decimation taking place in their communities.

Mary Simon, the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), one of the six national Inuit or Aboriginal organizations putting on the event, talked of her personal experience with her niece's suicide in March this year, and how these suicides affect everyone due to the small size and close-knit nature of Inuit communities.

She also focused on the need to implement mental health support in their communities: "It's a day where we recognize suicide prevention. So typically I would come here ... and encourage people to get more involved, sort of the pro-forma type of speech. But today, I wanted to speak about how I felt about it, as an individual and as a leader that's been dealing with mental health issues since I became president of ITK and trying to increase the support that people need in the north to address their issues."

She identified the need for having support services in all 53 communities in the Arctic, not just the major centres, and the problems with even in some larger communities only having support in the form of a social worker, who ends up taking on additional tasks of mental health and crisis support, unable to provide all that's needed and ending up burned out in a vicious cycle. She also stressed the importance of countering stigma around mental health issues, and the three elements required for successful treatment: proper diagnosis, suited treatment, and after care.

"When so many people start suiciding in a community, it's not an individual thing any longer. And that's what we're saying to the federal government, that if it was going on in other parts of Canada, this type of situation that we're facing right now, it would be considered a major crisis and there would be intervention."

ITK cites unpublished data from Health Canada that states the national suicide rate for Inuit is 135 per 100,000 people, as compared with 12 per 100,000 for Canada overall. The rate is among the highest in the world, approximately double that of the overall Aboriginal population in Canada, and it has been getting higher in recent years. More Inuit men than women are killing themselves, a majority are youth, and the average age is getting younger.

ITK's 'Inuit Approach to Suicide Prevention' backgrounder sheet details a number of factors contributing to high rates of suicide, including the results of colonialism and socio-economic factors, but high on the list is a lack of coping skills (seen in the number of post-relationship-breakup suicides among youth) and lack of access to mental health services.

Jennifer Watkins, president of the National Inuit Youth Council (NIYC), says "A lot of it comes from pain, all different kinds of pain that he or she was or is going through, and we'll just never know why, because we don't know why. I'm a very good prime example, I had a step-daughter that just committed suicide in May, and I know she had problems, and we, her loved ones around her, did the best we can to help her, but we'll just never know why. And you have to come to an inner closure sometime in our life, but I don't know when -- it'll come."

The need for mental health services is acute, especially to deal with addictions, says Watkins.

"The biggest problem is alcohol and substance abuse. Addictions is killing the north and we need facilities. We need rehabs, we need mental health, and we need workers to deal with these people that want to get better, for the betterment of their children and our children and the young people around all of us.

"For the programs and the facilities, it's up to the government. They have to come, they have to give us ideas, they have to help us, give us money -- and we always hear, 'the north is so expensive,' and there's no cost to a life, so I highly suggest the health and social services of the provincial level, the local level, and the federal level: that we have to do something, you have to come up with programs that meet our needs and our culture and our language so that we can work together to make a better future and to fight this combat of suicide all over the place -- left, right and centre -- and if there is facilities, I'm sure a lot of us would be here today."

When asked if she felt the different levels of government were listening to the problem, to the Youth Council and others, Watkins responds "I don't think so anymore. I know I'm not supposed to lose hope, but I don't know, I don't know. Not now, not now. One day, maybe."

"I want everyone to know that there is hope. We can't run out of hope, or we're just going to die, right. But I want the governments to know, we have to do something ... you can come and speak to us locals, and we can work with each other and figure it out together, because we can't do it alone anymore. So we need their help."

On the day of the event, another of the hosting organizations - the Honouring Life Network of the National Aboriginal Health Organization, released a video entitled: "Support" -- positive Inuit youth programming in Clyde River, Baffin Island (English) -- also available in Inuktitut language.

Greg Macdougall is an educator, writer and activist based in Ottawa. More of his writings are online and he is a member of IPSMO (Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Movement Ottawa).

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