'It's been pretty hard': In grips of suicide crisis, Fort Simpson looks for support

Fort Simpson is in the grips of a suicide crisis. The N.W.T. government has sent emergency resources to help in the interim, but the community says long-term measures are needed to keep people safe.

4 people have died by suicide in 4 months

Michael Gast, 20, suffered the loss of his mother and a friend within weeks of one another. 'It's been pretty hard, and everyone's been really supportive,' he says. (Jimmy Thomson/CBC)

Like many in Fort Simpson, Lisa Lafferty has experienced tragedies firsthand.

She's lost four people close to her over the last few years: two friends and, just recently, a cousin and her stepsister.

"I'm emotionally drained — emotionally drained like everybody else in this community," Lafferty says.

The N.W.T. village is home to about 1,200 people. It has suffered four suicides in just four months.

Those who died had little in common besides their place of residence. They were different ages, different genders, and came from different backgrounds.

The people they left behind now have one shared trait — the sudden loss of a loved one — and health officials are scrambling to support them.

The most recent death — of a 19-year-old woman — tipped the scales in favour of emergency intervention.

Three more counsellors were brought in and strategically placed around town; a community meeting was held just days after her funeral to get ideas on how to address the crisis; and Health Minister Glen Abernethy is due to visit on Monday to talk about what comes next.

"It's a multifaceted issue; there's no one approach," says Nathalie Nadeau, the N.W.T. health department's director of child, family and community wellness.

'It's been pretty hard'

Michael Gast sits next to the river as he explains the complex and interconnected social webs of the people growing up in the village.

At 20 years old, Gast has experienced a lifetime's worth of hardship in just a few months. He lost his mother to suicide in May. Then, just two weeks later, a close classmate.

"It's been pretty hard, and everyone's been really supportive," he says.

Graffiti on the side of a building in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., expresses a feeling shared widely in the community. (Jimmy Thomson/CBC)

Fort Simpson's small size has been both a strength and a weakness during the crisis. The informal support network that runs throughout the community has been there for Gast.

But as he continues to grieve for his mother, the network has come calling for his help to deal with the most recent death.

"Now... it's like I have to support some other friends too."

Leaning on each other

The tourists passing through Fort Simpson on their way to nearby Nahanni National Park would have no notion of the turmoil in the island community.

The golf course is busy, as are the hotels overlooking the Mackenzie River. 

Fort Simpson has two counsellors based in the community. The school also has its own two counsellors, but they are also responsible for the entire regional school district.

The superintendent of the Dehcho school district marvels at the level of informal community support.

"The teenagers are actually amazing in the support that they give to each other that we don't even know about," says Terry Jaffray.

But she urges them to come to an adult if they know of someone in crisis.

"It's hard to ask for help, but you have to look out for yourself," she says.

"If you're going to be any good for other people and achieve your dreams then you have to make sure, within yourself, that you're well."

Resources may wane when attention fades

Lafferty is proud of the way her community has come together, but wants changes in the way mental health is treated.

"Everybody's trying to get together now and work together and hopefully put a stop to this, and try and do a lot more suicide prevention," Lafferty says.

"But everybody's just walking around like… we're all in shock."

Lafferty says she has sought counselling but has had difficulty getting appointments.

Thomas Simpson School in Fort Simpson has been a focal point of activity throughout the crisis, offering counselling and other supports. (Jimmy Thomson/CBC)

According to Health and Social Services, prior to the arrival of the extra counsellors last week, for non-emergency appointments there has been an average wait time of three weeks to see a counsellor.

Today there is no waitlist, but Lafferty worries that when the attention fades, so too will the additional counsellors. The community is already down to two extra counsellors from the original three.

"It's not going to hit home for a couple months down the road when things get quiet and, you know, everybody's gone back to their normal life duties," Lafferty says.

"That's when it hits the people, the family, the friends and everybody, really, really hard."

Community leaders are trying to prepare for that.

Following the public meeting, the mayor, chief, and president of the local Métis nation agreed to ask the territorial government for long-term resources — namely, more counsellors, more culturally appropriate services, and a hotline.

The health department's Nadeau says the government is working with the community to provide that help.

If you are grappling with suicide in the N.W.T., call the confidential NWT Help Line at 1-800-661-0844.

You can also call the First Nations and Inuit Wellness Watch 24/7 at 1-855-242-3310 or Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 to speak to a counsellor.


Jimmy Thomson is a former reporter for CBC North.