For First Nations facing suicide crisis, the solution is rooted in the community
'We need to create space, whether through sport or culture or recreation, to make people feel alive'
From the other side of the country, Bill Yoachim is watching the community of Attawapiskat, in northern Ontario, struggle to cope with a wave of suicide attempts, and it breaks his heart.
"To me, it is a national epidemic. We're in a state of crisis," says Yoachim, a member of the Snuneymuxw First Nation on Vancouver Island and executive director of Kwumut Lelum Child and Family Services.
"Unfortunately, I've witnessed one too many suicides in my backyard as well."
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Yoachim's voice cracks as he describes finding his mother dead in her home nearly 20 years ago. She committed suicide after a childhood spent in an Indian hospital and years spent struggling with her mental health.
"It's scarring. It's very painful.... You carry it for your whole life. You carry it every day, sometimes every hour," he says.
Snuneymuxw First Nation is totally unlike the isolated community of Attawapiskat, in that it's located in an urban centre, within the city boundaries of Nanaimo, B.C. But like many First Nations, Yoachim's community experienced clusters of suicides as he was growing up, he says. In addition to his mother, he lost many cousins and says it was devastating not only to families but the entire community.
Snuneymuxw has been suicide-free for five years now. Yoachim credits the turnaround to community efforts to offer athletic programs to youth and, more importantly, a determination to include youth in reviving traditional Snuneymuxw culture.
"Connecting the community and culture is our main template... and we're having some positive results."
To understand the community's low rate of suicide, perhaps look no farther than Nanaimo's Departure Bay, where on any given spring evening, young Snuneymuxw men and women can be seen pulling together in sleek, 11-person canoes.
Mike Wyse leads the Island Brave crew, men all under age 20 who practise every day and compete as a team in indigenous canoe gatherings across British Columbia and Washington state. Wyse revived the youth paddling program at Snuneymuxw a decade ago, after his mother urged him not to let the age-old paddling tradition fade among youth.
"We experienced an unfortunate rash of suicides in our community too," Wyse says. But canoeing "has given our young people an alternative to look to a better life."
Wyse has watched youngsters start in the canoeing program move on to employment or higher education, rather than substance abuse or suicide. He credits the lessons they learn on the water.
"You never get on a canoe when you're angry or upset. That's one of our strong teachings that are passed down from older people. Canoe ain't gonna react the way you want it to," Wyse says.
"You need to have a strong mind and strong heart to be a canoe paddler, and you need all that to be strong in life."
Canoe clubs aren't the only healthy option for Snuneymuxw youth: basketball, lacrosse and soccer programs are also thriving. The community is proudly planning the grand opening of its new gym next month, a $4-million recreational facility that Snuneymuxw First Nation built mostly with its own economic development revenue.
"Not a dime came from the federal government," says Yoachim, explaining the gym offers a space for young athletes to gather but also houses a growing number of cultural workshops on everything from language and weaving and drum making.
"We need to create space, whether through sport or culture or recreation, to make people feel alive," Yoachim says.
That echoes two decades of research by University of Victoria psychologist Christopher Lalonde, who says the key to tackling suicides is a community-based approach rooted in indigenous culture and values.
"The solutions to youth suicide in Attawapiskat or any other community are not going to come from Ottawa," he says. "They're going to come from communities taking ownership."
Lalonde has monitored youth suicide rates in 196 First Nations in British Columbia for 21 years, and is now working with First Nations in Manitoba.
His data suggests suicide is not a universal epidemic amongst First Nations. Rather, a tiny fraction of communities bear the heaviest risk. Amongst First Nations in B.C., more than 90 per cent of suicides occur in only about 10 per cent of communities.
Perhaps also surprising, Lalonde found suicide rates aren't necessarily linked to the "usual constellation" of socio-economic and psychological risk factors that plague many First Nations such as high unemployment, low education levels or inadequate housing. Instead, Lalonde's research suggests, communities with epidemically high suicide rates tend to have one major thing in common: They're the least "culturally healthy."
"What we found is when communities have a sense of their collective past and have the tools and resources to navigate toward their future, those are the places that support youth health and well-being better than others."
Measures of what Lalonde calls "cultural continuity" in a community may include efforts to regain legal title to traditional lands and re-establish self-government, reassert control over education and the provision of health care, fire, and policing services, and build community facilities devoted to traditional cultural practices.
"The government spent 150 years trying to get rid of cultural resiliency, so it becomes a precious commodity," Lalonde explains. "The notion that 'My culture is alive, and I am my culture' is just deeply important."
Indigenous-style crisis support
Despite a fervent belief that culture can prevent suicide, Yoachim, from the Snuneymuxw First Nation, emphasizes that every First Nation inevitably experiences tragedies and crisis, and says he's grateful as a child welfare service provider to have First Nations-designed crisis intervention teams to turn to.
There are seven Aboriginal Support and Crisis Intervention Response Teams, or ASCIRTs, in British Columbia, including one in Nanaimo run by the Intertribal Health Authority. The teams are composed of First Nation volunteers and front-line service providers. While the title gives an impression of the teams as "first responders" who immediately rush to the scene of a crisis, the broader aim of the groups is to prevent suicides.
"Many times we come in as health professionals wanting to do the best, but it's through our lens as an outsider," says Emmy Manson, the mental wellness advisor for the Vancouver Island region of B.C's First Nation Health Authority.
"The capacity is in communities. They know their own people. They know their own culture. They're able to provide follow-up support, and they're able to create a relationship of trust and safety for people who are really vulnerable."
Manson says it's up to each group to determine how they will deliver their services, but it typically involves helping First Nation members receive certified training in counselling, crisis debriefing, First Aid and CPR, and most importantly to Manson, getting community members to break the silence around suicide.
"We're working to build their vocabulary, but also their comfort level. If someone is acting in a certain way, you ask, 'Are you suicidal?' And if they say yes, they'll have the proper response. You'd be amazed how many people don't really ask that."
The First Nation Health Authority spends almost $900,000 annually on the ASCIRT program, and suggests it wants to grow it to spread its reach. However, it was unable to provide any data measuring the effectiveness of the teams because "programs are currently being reviewed."
Manson acknowledges the ASCIRT model is more challenging to apply in smaller communities that don't have many front-line staff, but she's convinced the teams are a step in the right direction. "Our communities are building a foundation of our own skilled people. It has to be our own people who bring us out of the darkness."
Bill Yoachim echoes that sentiment, referring back to how Mike Wyse stepped up in Snuneymuxw to lead the canoe clubs.
"The wisdom is within the community. There's a champion in every community, and we gotta find those champions — if we're in northern B.C., northern Ontario or little Nanaimo on Vancouver Island… They will come out. We just gotta make sure we support that."