Catching the warning signs: N.W.T. workshops promote suicide prevention

Recognizing the signs of suicidal ideation and knowing how to help are teachable skills, says Alyssa Carpenter, the N.W.T.'s only certified safeTALK counsellor.

Alyssa Carpenter is the only certified safeTALK trainer in the Northwest Territories

Originally from Sachs Harbour, N.W.T., Alyssa Carpenter hopes to increase safeTALK training across the North. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

Alyssa Carpenter knows depression and suicidal ideation from the inside, and she's learned the formal skills to not only help herself, but to help others.

Now, whenever she can, she uses those skills to make a difference in the North.

Which is why even though she's on maternity leave, she's been holding safeTALK workshops, where people learn to recognize the signals that someone is considering suicide, and how to respond.

"I had experience with anxiety and depression, and [of] being an individual who has had thoughts of suicide, of really being on that side of the spectrum of life," said Carpenter.

"Knowing that … people were open to having these conversations, probably when I was a young teenager, it would've helped a lot."

Carpenter grew up in Sachs Harbour and Inuvik but has been recently working for the Whitehorse-based organization BYTE-Empowering Youth. It focuses on educating youth through various workshops and activities.

It was with that organization that Carpenter got certified as a safeTALK trainer. The safeTALK program is endorsed by the Centre for Suicide Prevention, a branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

"I'm not the only one who knows how to do this but I am the only one living in the Northwest Territories," Carpenter said. "I'm just recognizing a need and it's so valuable to have someone who can understand the perspective a little bit."

She held workshops in Inuvik on Wednesday, and in Fort McPherson on Friday.

Don't treat as taboo

Carpenter said the Tetlit Gwich'in First Nation invited her to come to Fort McPherson to put on a workshop after she asked on social media who would be interested in attending.

Carpenter said the three-hour sessions deal with lots of conversations revolving around suicide, different ways of coping, what types of behaviour to look out for, and how to "respond in a caring way."

"It's about having a conversation and not treating it as a taboo," Carpenter said.

"We have to acknowledge that people are human, and that things impact people differently so it's also bringing in that conversation."

Carpenter said she was partly motivated to hold workshops now, because she said it's been a tough summer for the Beaufort-Delta region in terms of suicides.

Jordan Peterson, deputy grand chief of Gwich'in Tribal Council, has his name on a list of people available on a suicide prevention hotline in the region. (Wanda McLeod/CBC)

In June, a community-run suicide hotline was started in Fort McPherson. It's a list of names in the region people can call if they need someone to talk to.

Jordan Peterson, deputy grand chief of Gwich'in Tribal Council, is one name on the list.

"I think that too often, we as people are only putting the resources in place and talking about the issue of suicide when it happens," he said.

Peterson said he couldn't make the workshop this time around, but said getting safeTALK trained was a priority for him, as is getting more programs in the communities on a regular basis. 

"I think that it's important that our leadership in our communities are trained in this way because sometimes young people feel more comfortable reaching out to someone that they know, and that's why that list is so important," Peterson said.

According to federal government statistics, the suicide rate in the Northwest Territories is almost double that of the rest of Canada. In the Beaufort Delta region, there have been two suicides in 2019.

Carpenter said she plans to hold more safeTALK workshops in Inuvik and Yellowknife in the next couple of months.

Need help?

If you or someone you know is suffering from mental health issues or suicidal thoughts, the Crisis Services Canada website is a good resource. You can also call them toll-free at 1-833-456-4566 or text 45645.