Suicide Prevention Day: Social inequality and budget cuts are a matter of life and death

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"Sadly, every person you ask from the Northern Inuit regions knows someone who has killed themselves. I personally have four cousins who have committed suicide. People you know your whole life. You grow and laugh with them and then they are not there anymore because they decide to take their own lives. The numbers are an epidemic, if these numbers existed in southern Canada, it would be a national emergency and there would be measures to address it."  

Sobering comments from Terry Audla, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the National Inuit Organization in Canada. Audla is the referring to the alarmingly high rates of suicide among Canada's Inuit population, which are 11 times higher than the national average.  

Across the Inuit Nunangat regions youth under 19 are 30 times more likely to die from suicide than youth elsewhere. Half of teen deaths are from suicide compared to 10 per cent in the rest of Canada and 85 per cent of those suicides are young men between 15-24 years of age. 

"It's maddening and it's saddening. I hate that these numbers are so high," says Audla who is also frustrated that most people don't realize that the Inuit live on 3/5ths of Canada's land mass and that southern Canadians don't have enough knowledge about the Inuit.  

"Inuit have been in transition over the past few decades. It's still in our living memory that we were living off the land in seasonal camps following the migration of the animals and this allowed for much more cohesive families. To all the sudden be introduced to foreign standards of living and education, different from traditional life, a lot of adjustment is involved.  We need to be addressing and healing the despair of our youth. Because of isolation and distance, it's a fight unseen and unheard. "

ITK's Health Budget was recently cut by 40 per cent, which, along with other funding cuts to Aboriginal Health services, Audla says has had devastating effects on their capacity to reach Inuit youth.  

According to the office of Canada's Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, in 2011-12, Health Canada provided over $245 million to support mental health and addictions programming for First Nations and Inuit communities.  From 2005-2010 the Government of Canada invested $65 million to implement the National Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy and an additional $15 million has been allocated to continue supporting communities through to 2013.  

Despite these investments, the 2012 Budget calls for $160 million cut from Aboriginal Affairs over the next three years.

The Health Minister's office states that "our priority is protecting the front-line health and safety services to First Nation and Inuit communities, and making sure that taxpayers' dollars are used wisely."

"The gederal government has this fascination with saying that budget cuts won't affect front-line services," says Dr. Fiona McGregor, President of the Canadian Psychiatric Association. "They say they are not affecting front line services, but that is a cosmetic spin, the reality is you've got less funding for the things that are required. Looking at suicide prevention is complex, it's about promoting resiliency.  Whether that is a friendship centre with a parenting program, or ensuring access to housing these things decrease hopelessness which is when suicide rates are at their highest."

Dr. McGregor goes on to say, "So although they say they need to bite the bullet and trim the budget, it has enormous implications for the people at the bottom of the pile. Basically they are slashing away at the fabric of society. If you cut 5 per cent off an impoverished person and 5 per cent off a Prime Minister's income, there is an enormous difference in impact. What our government doesn't understand is that social inequity is a predictor of life span."

Equity, health and the LGBT population 

The link between equity and health is also clearly illustrated in the Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans (LGBT) population who also have higher suicide rates then the general population. Reports show that two out of every three trans people have attempted suicide and 40 per cent have succeeded.  

"It can be attributed to the effects of living in a heteronormative society with much stigma and transphobia, resulting in discrimination, violence and isolation, all of which have a huge impact on mental health," says Donna Turner from Rainbow Health Ontario.

"The suicide rates within the trans community are shockingly high and it's terribly disturbing that it's such a common thing. It reminds me of the AIDS epidemic when people were dropping like flies and gay men were going to funerals all the time, that's how prevalent suicide is now within the trans community."

In August, trans activist and researcher Kyle Scanlon killed himself.  Scanlon was a leader in trans advocacy and health and he worked with Turner on Project Open Door, which helps to ensure that trans people have better access to health and other services.  "His death was such a blow to the community, I hope it's got people talking", says Turner.  "There needs to be more awareness that trans people are out there, they walk among us and the world needs to change so that people can be who they are.  Changing people's attitudes is the first step".

One challenge facing health care providers for LGBT people is a lack of research.  The Canadian government doesn't segment lgbt communities in their health research, which according to Turner has far reaching consequences. "Research leads to action and policy change. If we want to go and speak to the government about policy change, you always need research to back you up. If you are looking for more dollars for LGBT health, they are always looking for the numbers and we don't have a tone of research, more is needed."

In an attempt to bridge some of the gaps when it comes to knowledge exchange and policy development, a National Collaborative on Suicide Prevention has just been launched by the Mental Health Commission of Canada and the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention (CASP).

"Suicide crosses a whole pile of jurisdictions and domains, children's health, adult addiction, ailing seniors, chronic pain, mental illness and more.  Until now, there has not been a framework across the country that connects people together" explains Dammy Damstrom-Albach, President of CASP.  "When you pull together a National Collaborative on Suicide Prevention, you can connect those with the research to those on the ground and then help them implement and evaluate."

"Unlike a lot of other deaths, suicide is largely preventable. We believe that suicide prevention is everyone's business. If you learn what resources are available in your community, you can raise your own level of awareness and reach out to people."

Jude Platzer lost her teenage son Josh to suicide more than ten years ago and ever since has dedicated herself to reaching others before it is too late. "Unlike other illnesses, there is no blood, you can't see any wound. We respond differently when people can see the wound. Other sicknesses get a warm reception, but when someone is depressed, they get pushed away. The difference between physical and mental illness is that we are just not comfortable talking about it."

Platzer spends her time speaking at schools and offering educational campaigns hoping to save another family from the grief she knows too well. "People need to learn strategies to help themselves. We need to emphasize that it does get better."

Audla echoes her message as he leads his people through a time of crisis when it comes to suicide. "If I could say one thing to all the youth who are struggling, it would be that they need to know that it's going to pass, there's always a tomorrow."

The Inuit Rally to raise awareness about suicide Monday Sept, 10, 12-1pm at the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Jude Platzer and Dammy Damstrom-Albach are speaking at World Suicide Prevention event in Vancouver, Monday Sep 10, 7pm at Oakridge Adventist Church, 5350 Baillie Street.

Samantha Sarra is a freelance journalist based out of Vancouver.  For more than a decade she has worked in television and print as a journalist committed to covering human rights, politics, culture and the arts. As an activist she volunteers for several organizations and currently sits on the board of The Shanti Uganda Society.

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