Dozens of Suicide Attempts in Indigenous Community Spark National Response

After nearly a dozen people attempted suicide on a single day, leaders of the Attawapiskat First Nation declared a state of emergency.

A tattered Canadian flag flies over a tepee in Attawapiskat, Ontario, on Dec. 17, 2011. (Photo: Frank Gunn/Reuters)

Apr 11, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Help has arrived in a remote First Nation community in Ontario, Canada, following a rash of suicide attempts over the past six weeks.

On Monday, federal and regional health agencies deployed an emergency health unit, mental health nurses, and social workers to the Attawapiskat First Nation, CBC News reports. The community, located near the southwestern shores of Hudson Bay, declared a state of emergency on April 9 after 11 people attempted suicide on the same day.

Saturday’s suicide attempts come in the wake of a bubble of self-harm in the Attawapiskat First Nation last month. Nearly 30 people attempted suicide in March. In total, more than 100 people, ranging in age from 11 to 71, have tried to take their own lives since September, according to Canadian news outlets. With just 2,000 people living on the Attawapiskat First Nation reserve, that figure accounts for about 5 percent of the total population.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the weekend’s events “heartbreaking” on Twitter.

The crisis is not unique to the Attawapiskat First Nation. Suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading cause of death for indigenous teens and adults up to 44 years old in Canada, according to research from Health Canada. First Nations teens are five times more likely to commit suicide than nonindigenous youths. Native people in America also suffer from high suicide rates. In the U.S., Native Americans and Native Alaskans ages 15 to 34 are 1.5 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population, according to a 2015 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Member of Parliament Charlie Angus noted that suicide attempts and completions are exacerbated by a lack of robust community response.

“When a young person tries to commit suicide in any suburban school, they send in the resources, they send in the emergency team. There’s a standard protocol for response,” Angus told the Vancouver Sun. “The northern communities are left on their own.” The Attawapiskat First Nation has just four health workers, none of whom specialize in mental health. Angus said untrained community members often take on roles as bereavement counselors to help struggling teens, but they are not qualified to do so and are often dealing with grief of their own.

Along with adding counseling services, people in the indigenous community say there needs to be a broader attempt to address the overall quality of life for First Nations people.

Perry Bellegarde, the national chief of Canada’s Assembly of First Nations, called for long-term plans to address suicide rates in the indigenous community.

“The situation in Attawapiskat is sadly felt by far too many First Nations across the country,” he said in a statement released on Monday. “We need a sustained commitment to address long-standing issues that lead to hopelessness among our peoples, particularly the youth.”

Poverty and unemployment are rampant among the Attawapiskat First Nation community, which has declared five states of emergency since 2006, requesting federal support because of contaminated drinking water and housing shortages.

Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Bruce Shisheesh told the CBC he believed current overcrowding in homes, school bullying, and drug addiction are contributing to high levels of depression and suicide.

Shisheesh also said Canada’s residential schools, which ran from the 1880s to the 1990s and forced indigenous youths to assimilate into mainstream Canadian culture, have left First Nations people with emotional scars and unresolved mental health problems. More than 3,000 children died while attending the schools, according to a 2015 report from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Attawapiskat is not the only First Nation community in the midst of a suicide crisis. Manitoba’s Pimicikamak Cree Nation declared a state of emergency in March after 140 suicide attempts over a two-week period.