Study calls for more-detailed data on Saskatchewan suicide rates
'Data is power. It can move policy, politicians, legislation … this why it's incredibly important.'
A new study says inadequate suicide data and tracking in Saskatchewan is skewing rates and prohibiting effective suicide prevention strategies from being developed.
Suicide is the ninth leading cause of death in Canada, and while rates have decreased nationally over the past five years, rates in Saskatchewan remain above the national average.
"What we know is that we have the highest concentration of Indigenous people in northern Saskatchewan, and we know the suicide rates are elevated there, so we just assume the rates are high amongst Indigenous people," said University of Saskatchewan professor Caroline Tait, one of the authors of the study.
"But what we don't know is whether the rates for Indigenous people, particularly Indigenous youth, are elevated in other regions of the province as well."
That's because the Regional Health Authorities (RHA) do not track ethnicity on hospitalization and coroner records for suicide-related deaths and injury.
"We don't know whether, if you just look at First Nations and Métis populations, whether the rates in the south are actually just as high as in the north."
But Tait suspects they could be.
Two studies focussing on Saskatchewan youth in grades 5 to 8 found that 23 per cent of First Nations youth living on reserves within the Saskatoon Tribal Council and 19 per cent of First Nations and Métis youth living in Saskatoon had experienced suicidal thoughts — roughly three times higher than for non-Indigenous youth in Saskatoon.
Tait's study argues that "these findings are of concern given that approximately 30 per cent of individuals who experience suicide ideation go on to attempt suicide."
Another problem, according to Tait, is that the RHAs fail to distinguish between self-harm and attempted suicide.
"Self-harm is not the same as people trying to kill themselves, and the outcomes can be very different," said Tait.
"We need to differentiate between these, because suicide attempts are a predictor of future events, and of people killing themselves eventually."
Tait said these kind of generalizations make it difficult for local health managers, tribal councils and Indigenous leaders to effectively argue for increased resources, or to "even have an idea of the scope of the issue."
'Data is power'
The paper calls for an 'Indigenous youth surveillance framework' that would include a clinical intake tool that allows patients who have attempted suicide and families of suicide victims to reveal First Nations and Métis identity.
That would allow, according to the paper, Indigenous identity to be cross-referenced with age and postal code, so Indigenous health leaders can more easily identify those communities in greatest need of support.
"The health region in Saskatoon is already starting to do that," said Tait, adding that until it's province wide, the value is limited.
Tait also stressed that something like this has to be done in partnership with Indigenous organizations and leaders.
"Data is power. It can move policy, it can move politicians, legislation, and so this why it's incredibly important from an Indigenous perspective to have control over that data."
What that means, exactly, would have be be negotiated, but it could mean that the data could only be accessed through an application to the First Nation that says how it will be used."
"That doesn't mean First Nations are withholding data, or that they're masking. It just means it's their story to tell. So for them to have self-determination over that data would be key."