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Putting indigenous communities under suicide watch is no answer

Suicide is not a spectator sport.

The epidemic of self-harm occurring in indigenous communities warrants urgent attention, but the right kind of attention.

We don't need ghoulish body counts, reported daily in headlines like the latest sports scores:

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"Girl, 13, at least fifth to commit suicide in Sask. this month"

"Ten-year-old aboriginal girl latest in rash of suicides"

"Five more Attawapiskat youth attempt suicide"

"Four girls, age 10 to 14, have taken their lives this month"

"Nunavik village grieving five youth suicides in three months."

There is evidence that this kind of news coverage can fuel suicide contagion – a chain reaction where you see multiple deaths in a short time period within a specific geographic area.

This is particularly true in small communities, where residents live in similar circumstances, and among impressionable young people. It's made all the worse when the deaths are – unconsciously or otherwise – seen as helping the community by drawing attention to their plight and bringing outside help.

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Comments like, "Of course she killed herself, conditions are wretched and young people have no hope," are not lost on peers. Neither is the fact that long-neglected communities get an influx of aid if there's enough bloodshed.

We saw this tragic chain reaction play out last spring in the Attawapiskat First Nation in Northern Ontario, where there were reports of more than 100 attempted suicides over a six-month period – and, where, at one point, we were getting daily updates like "there were 11 suicide attempts on Saturday night" and reports of a suicide pact among more than a dozen youth, some as young as 9.

Then there are the emotion-packed funerals, the candlelight vigils, the marches demanding action.

Suddenly, a powerless, voiceless community is being listened to, up to and including the Prime Minister, all of which can glamorize and prompt copycat suicides.

But a crisis response can never last long. The media and political spotlight fades and moves on. There is always another crisis elsewhere.

What we know is that the solution to the epidemic of suicide (and drug and alcohol abuse, family violence, sexual violence and trauma, which are all interrelated) in First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities has to be broad-based and long-term and, ultimately, it cannot come from the outside.

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Christopher Lalonde, a University of Victoria psychology professor, has studied suicide in First Nations communities for more than two decades, and his research challenges many pervasive assumptions.

His studies show that suicide is not a universal epidemic, but concentrated in a small minority of indigenous communities. Further, while high suicide rates are blamed on socioeconomic factors like poor housing, high unemployment and isolation, those realities also exist in communities where suicide is rare.

The principal difference between healthy and unhealthy places, Dr. Lalonde's research shows, is "cultural continuity" – things like having title over land, self-government, control of health and education services, and strong cultural practices.

Put another way, suicide rates are far lower where people have a sense of belonging, self-worth and resiliency – the very things that the Indian Act, residential schools, the Sixties Scoop and other initiatives set out to destroy by isolating and fencing in nomadic groups, breaking up families, banning cultural practices and choking off traditional languages.

Sadly, none of these wrongs can be properly righted overnight, if ever. So, at this point in the well-worn narrative, we tend to get consumed by hopelessness.

But, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission stressed, reconciliation is a process that requires education, engagement and action over time.

What does this have to do with the epidemic of indigenous suicide? Well, it's a reminder that the response requires a strategy, and one with a strong cultural component.

There is much to be fixed on reserves and beyond, from poor drinking water to child welfare, through to addiction and mental-health supports.

Imagine if we took all the money that goes into crisis response and used it instead to facilitate indigenous communities learning from each other, nation-to-nation.

Imagine if we listened to young people's hopes and fears and helped them design solutions without there having to be an outburst of self-harm to get our attention.

Imagine if, instead of a running count of the young indigenous people who killed themselves, we had a running count of those who graduated from university.

Imagine if, in First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities, success was a spectator sport.

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About the Author
Public health reporter

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books.André has received much acclaim for his writing. More


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