Northern Sask. communities in shock after 3 girls take own lives

The northern Saskatchewan communities of La Ronge and Stanley Mission are in shock after three young girls took their own lives within four days.

More than 20 young people considered high risk

Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook-Searson says the entire community is on edge. (Devin Heroux/CBC)

The northern Saskatchewan communities of La Ronge and Stanley Mission are in shock after three young girls took their own lives within four days. 

The girls were 12 to 14 years old.

"Everyone is on edge right now," said Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief, Tammy Cook-Searson. "It's a lot of pain to take when you lose a child and a family member."

Two of the girls were from Stanley Mission. The other girl was from La Ronge. There have been two funerals this week. The final funeral is on Saturday afternoon.

"Right now, we're still grieving, but at the same time we know we have to set up the support systems," said Cook-Searson.

Cook-Searson said she's been in contact with the families of the girls. She said despite their grief, the families have come together to start a difficult conversation about how to stop this from happening to another young person in the community. 

"They are devastated by their deaths, but they also have ideas for us too," said Cook-Searson "They've been very supportive of each other."

The community of Stanley Mission is reeling after three young girls died earlier this month. (Devin Heroux/CBC News)

Cook-Searson has also been talking to a number of young people in the community.

"They're hurting. They miss their friends. They haven't said too much to me. We're just trying to get a sense of what's going on. They've lost their friends."

Communities come together

In the immediate aftermath of this tragedy, the community of Stanley Mission opened up its Band Office and Youth Centre for 24 hours a day. Both facilities continue to be open around the clock. 

Local officials also had a community gathering at the Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Stanley Mission last Friday night. Cook-Searson said it was an important step in stopping more young people from taking their own lives.

"When we started on Friday night, we had one youth that came there and told us about three more youth that were talking about suicide," said Cook-Searson. 

Chief Tammy Cook-Searson responds to youth suicides on the Lac La Ronge Indian Band.

6 years ago
Duration 0:22
Chief Tammy Cook-Searson responds to youth suicides on the Lac La Ronge Indian Band.

"And right away, we followed up and said you know you save lives by telling us this."

The following day there was a community meeting and debriefing session for anyone who wanted to attend. One-on-one sessions with counsellors and therapists were also offered.

"We just want to be here to support the families that are grieving and the same time setting up supports for the families and children who are grieving not just for now but into the future," said Cook-Searson.

More than 20 young people high risk

The focus for the community now is ensuring that another young life isn't lost. Cook-Searson said the communities have identified more than 20 young people who are considered high risk to take their own lives. 

"We have to have faith, and we have to have hope. And just have to encourage our kids to have that hope and to hang on," said Cook-Searson. 

Some of youth have been taken to Prince Albert and Saskatoon to be assessed by adolescent psychiatrists. Others have been sent home with a safety plan after being assessed by a health professional in the communities. And some are gathering at homes in La Ronge and Stanley Mission. 

"The parents are taking turns looking after kids right now," said Cook-Searson. "The kids are sleeping over with their friends. They're talking to each other."

Inside the classrooms in both of the communities teachers are now receiving suicide prevention training. It's also available to any of the parents in each community. 

"The young people are grieving the loss of their friends. Their classmates," said Cook-Searson. 

Counsellors and therapists have also made themselves available 24 hours a day and have posted their cell phone numbers on social media sites for the young people. 

The community of Stanley Mission is mourning the loss of two girls who took their own lives. (Devin Heroux/CBC)

Federal and provincial support

Health Canada has now stepped in and is helping to bring psychologists and counsellors from Saskatoon. This will continue until at least December. The provincial government is helping to co-ordinate emergency response efforts including bringing in therapists from neighbouring health regions.

Five counsellors from the Prince Albert Grand Council are on the ground helping as well. The Jeannie Bird Clinic in La Ronge is also providing support. 

"I know there's a lot of people who want to help us from the outside communities and we want them to know we welcome and appreciate that help," said Cook-Searson.

Cook-Searson also said that a number of months ago the First Nation presented a plan to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. That plan included a $17-million mental health facility for the communities.

Cook-Searson said Trudeau didn't originally say no but needed to see a business plan. The community has now put aside $2 million of its own money and will be presenting the plan next month. 

Cook-Searson said this tragedy places more importance on needing this facility. 

The five-year average suicide rate for youth 19 and under within the Mamawetan Churchill River Regional Health Authority between 2010 to 2015 is 32.18 per 100,000 population, according to eHealth Saskatchewan. 

Keeping faith in face of tragedy

Cook-Searson said families continue to be on edge right now as parents hope and pray that young people taking their own lives stops. She said they have a simple message for the young people in Stanley Mission and La Ronge.

"We want to tell the youth they are loved and they're cared for and encouraging them to reach out to each other."

Cook-Searson said she's inspired and proud of the way the local leaders and residents have come together to support each other. And she feels that the key to healing and moving forward is going to have to come from within the community, today and into the future.

"I know that it's hard for all of us but we are very strong people," she said. "We have strong resilient people and we'll continue to stick together and work together and be here for our youth.