New FSIN suicide prevention strategy calls for more mental-health care, better screening for those at risk

Saskatchewan's high Indigenous suicide rates call out for a co-ordinated,community-runapproach to bring them down, says a plan from the organization that represents the province's First Nations.

Suicide rate for Indigenous population 4 times higher than in Saskatchewan's general population

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations plan emphasizes community-based prevention through grants to fund locally developed projects and programs rooted in traditional activities. (REUTERS)

Saskatchewan's painfully high Indigenous suicide rates call out for a co-ordinated, community-run approach to bring them down, says a plan from the organization that represents the province's First Nations.

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations released its suicide prevention strategy on Thursday.

"It's going to be a great tool to address some of the issues around mental health," said vice-chief David Pratt. "It's the first of its kind in our region."

Indigenous people in Saskatchewan — especially northern Saskatchewan — are afflicted with some of the worst suicide rates in Canada.

Overall suicides are four times higher in the Indigenous population than in the province's general population.

For males between the ages of 20 and 29, the rate is 10 times higher. First Nations girls between 10 and 19 kill themselves almost 30 times more often.

From 2005 to 2016, 508 lives were lost.

"We feel like something has to be done," said Pratt. "We can no longer sit back and allow our young people to lose hope."

The plan says current efforts to fight suicide in Saskatchewan are failing, beginning with how the problem is understood.

The province doesn't compile regional suicide breakdowns. Nor does it have information on substances found in people who have taken their lives or even numbers on suicide attempts.

The strategy draws on previous efforts from Quebec, Nunavut and U.S. Indigenous communities that have shown promising results.

It emphasizes community-based prevention through grants to fund locally developed projects.

It suggests that programs rooted in traditional activities be developed. Elders and others should be engaged to share stories and traditional teachings relevant to each First Nation.

It also calls for heavy investment of resources in early childhood development and parental support, as well as in teaching kids how to bounce back from bad experiences.

More mental-health care is needed, says the strategy, including better screening of and followup with those at risk of suicide. Programs to address family violence are also required.

The plan suggests economic development is also key.

"Substantial reduction in the rate of death by First Nations peoples in Saskatchewan will not occur without multifaceted targeted suicide prevention measures and fundamental and profound improvements in social and economic conditions."

The strategy quotes documents that show the government has known about the high suicide rate for nearly 40 years.

"The failure of the federal and provincial governments to take actions commensurate with the high burden of suicide-related loss and suffering among Saskatchewan First Nations communities since at least the 1970s is a powerful example of systemic racism," it says.

The strategy calls for immediate funding to put the report into action over the next five years.

That's just the start, said Pratt.

Better housing and education, as well as improved services such as better internet, are all tied into the problem.

"We need a major investment," he said. "I'm confident the government's going to do what's right."

In Nunavut, where suicide rates are highest, funding for mental health and suicide prevention grew to almost $34 million in the most recent budget from $9 million in 2011. Since 2014, rates have fallen 13 per cent.

Federal New Democrat MP Charlie Angus tabled a bill Tuesday calling for a national plan on suicide prevention.

Pratt said Saskatchewan can't afford not to deal with the problem. He points out that Indigenous people could make up half the province's population by the end of the century.

"We're the fastest-growing demographic in the province. If we don't start addressing these issues today, this province is on the verge of a social and economic catastrophe."