Attawapiskat declares state of emergency over spate of suicide attempts

Attawapiskat First Nation, on remote James Bay, has declared a state of emergency, saying it's overwhelmed by the number of attempted suicides in the community. Eleven people tried to take their own lives on Saturday night alone, the chief said.

Chief Bruce Shisheesh desperate for mental health services after 11 attempts on Saturday night alone

Among the 2,000 citizens of Attawapiskat on remote James Bay, 101 people have tried to kill themselves, with one person dying, since September, according to the First Nation's chief. (CBC)

The chief and council for the Attawapiskat First Nation on remote James Bay have declared a state of emergency, saying they're overwhelmed by the number of attempted suicides in the community.

On Saturday night alone, 11 people attempted to take their own lives, Chief Bruce Shisheesh said.

Shisheesh and the council met Saturday night and unanimously voted to declare the state of emergency. That compels such agencies as the Weeneebayko Health Authority in Moose Factory, Ont., and Health Canada to bring in additional resources.

Including Saturday's spate of suicide attempts, a total of 101 people of all ages have tried to kill themselves since September, Shisheesh said, with one person dying. The youngest was 11, the oldest 71. 

The Cree community — home to about 2,000 residents — saw 28 attempts in March alone.

Last September, a group of five girls overdosed and had to be medevaced out of the community, Shisheesh said.

I have relatives that have attempted to take their own lives ... cousins, friends.- Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh

Four health-care workers without specialized mental health training are trying to keep up with the attempts and to avert future ones, he said.

"I'm asking friends, government, that we need help in our community," Shisheesh said. "I have relatives that have attempted to take their own lives... cousins, friends."

The council has hired security to keep an eye on patients currently in hospital. The Mushkegowuk Council, which represents eight northern Ontario First Nations, is also trying to help. 

"These four workers, crisis workers, are burned out. They can't continue working daily because of the amount of suicides [that] have happened. They're backlogged," said the council's Deputy Grand Chief Rebecca Friday. 

"There are no services at the moment, no counsellors in the community."

A few support workers have been brought in by the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, an association of northern Ontario First Nations, she said, but that's not enough to stem the number of attempted suicides.

Government response

The federal and Ontario health ministers announced support for Attawapiskat on Sunday evening, saying that the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority hospital was immediately flying in a crisis team, including mental-health nurses and social workers.

Ontario also said it would deploy its Health Ministry's Emergency Medical Assistance Team to "get to work immediately" as well as to "determine what further supports are needed for the medium term." 

"Hearing about the loss of life to suicide and the feelings of despair felt by the community of Attawapiskat reminds us of how important it is to work with First Nations and indigenous peoples across the country to address the very real challenges facing their communities," federal Health Minister Jane Philpott said in a statement.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also weighed in on the situation Sunday, calling the news from Attawapiskat "heartbreaking."

Charlie Angus, the region's MP and NDP indigenous affairs critic, echoed others' sentiments that northern communities aren't given the resources to deal with complicated grief.

"When a young person tries to commit suicide in any suburban school, they send in the resources, they send in the emergency team. There's a standard protocol for response. The northern communities are left on their own," he said. "We don't have the mental health service dollars. We don't have the resources."

Angus said it's been a "rolling nightmare" of more and more suicide attempts among young people throughout the winter.

Triggers include overcrowding, abuse

As for the triggers, there are many, Shisheesh said. Overcrowding with 14 to 15 people living in one home is difficult, he said. Bullying at school is another trigger. Emotional damage caused by abuse during enrolment at residential schools is having a ripple effect through the generations, he said. 

(Erik White/CBC )

Drug abuse is another factor, Shisheesh said. People try to numb themselves after physical and sexual abuse.

"We have people that are on prescriptions. We have people that are selling pills. And I believe that's how some of them have withdrawals and they feel unwanted, or they don't know how to express their feelings and they have to use a drug to drown their problems or their pains," Shisheesh said.

"And when you don't have money to buy drugs, that's when they turn to suicide."

As for the near-daily attempts in March, Shisheesh said he had no explanation. He just said he worried every time his phone rang in case it was more bad news.

The chief and council are planning to meet Monday to formulate a strategic plan.

"We need help in Attawapiskat," Shisheesh said.

With files from The Canadian Press