Nunavut funds community-based suicide prevention plan

The Nunavut government is spending $35 million, and working with Facebook, to make its largest push yet in tackling the suicide crisis.

Facebook joins forces with Nunavut to make social media part of the solution

Facebook staffers gather with the head of Nunavut RCMP, Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna and the president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. in Iqaluit on Monday for a joint announcement on social media and suicide prevention. (Sara Frizzell/CBC)

Nunavut is making its largest push yet to tackle its suicide crisis, including a role for social media.

In Iqaluit Monday, the Nunavut government unveiled a $35-million, five-year suicide prevention plan that focuses on building a program at the community level, instead of leaving all the legwork to the territorial government.

Half the money will go directly to communities.

That idea grew out of a summit held in Iqaluit in May 2016 with representatives from across Nunavut to share ideas on what was working and what else was needed, said David Lawson, an RCMP officer who is president of the Embrace Life Council. His group helped produce the plan along with the Nunavut government, RCMP and other organizations.

People at the summit noted it was difficult for local groups with ideas for solutions to slog through the paperwork and proposals they needed to complete in order to secure funding.

The five-year plan dedicates $16 million to community programs, large or small, that help prevent suicide — anything from mental health services and prenatal care to early childhood education.

'Our communities know what they need'

Solomon Nasook of Hall Beach, Nunavut, is pleased.

Two years ago, while working as a guard in RCMP cells, he applied for $26,000 to start a men's group.

Solomon Nasook of Hall Beach started one of the territory's most successful suicide prevention programs. (Solomon Nasook/Facebook)

Today, it's one of the most successful programs in Nunavut.

"Getting the men to talk about their problems," he said. "Letting it out. Doing one-on-one, I think that helped a lot. We took them out for one-week trips, either fishing or caribou hunting, or both. And they all came back a lot happier, and that's when things started changing."

Canada's average annual suicide rate is 11 per 100,000 people, but Nunavut's rate is 117. For Inuit males between 15 and 29, the rate is almost 40 times the national figure.

George Hickes, Nunavut's health minister, said communities know what they need and where they need to focus efforts to prevent suicide. Issues for communities range from lack of economic opportunities to overcrowded housing and the effects of residential schools.

"We're different from other jurisdictions. I'm one generation from being born on the land. My father was born out on the land. So now we're living a semi-urban lifestyle. It's an adjustment in identity," Hickes said.

"Our communities know what they need. We've just got to be able to give them the resources to deliver."

'Facebook really is the platform'

Social media also plays a role in the plan, which was revealed Monday during Facebook's Boost Your Community event in Iqaluit. 

Facebook use in the North is higher than the national average, said Kevin Chan, head of public policy for Facebook Canada.

"They are really using the platform as a primary way to communicate with each other. And we do see that in many communities that are more rural and more remote," said Chan, who was at Monday's summit.

"Up in the North, Facebook really is the platform for communication."

The social media platform already has ways a user can anonymously report a friend's distressing posts, but Chan said Facebook will now provide a link to a Health Canada wellness line that is culturally sensitive to Indigenous people.

The First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness help line offers 24-7 crisis intervention counselling services in French, English, Cree, Ojibwa and Inuktitut.

If you're experiencing emotional distress and want to talk, call the First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1-855-242-3310.

With files from The Canadian Press, Sara Frizzell and Nick Murray