Empowering community, individual key to combating suicide: experts

By Taylor MacPherson
October 19, 2016 - 12:07pm

When one learns four girls, as young as 10-years-old, committed suicide on remote Northern Saskatchewan communities, the first reaction might well be ‘why?’

Two experts explained why suicide may be more prevalent in First Nations communities, and what can be done to mitigate tragedy.

Dr. Rod McCormick, endowed research chair in aboriginal health at Thompson Rivers University and nationally-recognized expert on First Nations mental health, spoke about the recent suicides of four young girls – two in Stanley Mission, one in La Ronge and the most recent in Deschambault Lake.

While McCormick acknowledged the benefit of the numerous new mental health support resources put in place in both communities, he said support workers must overcome their preconceived notions if they want to help First Nations communities.

“Western therapy is based on Western worldviews,” McCormick said. “It’s very individually oriented. It’s about having control over your environment.”

According to McCormick, who is a member of the Mohawk Nation (Kanienkehaka), most Western therapists have little or no understanding of the connections which are so crucial to First Nations culture and worldviews.

McCormick said suicide is the direct result of an absence of meaning in an individual’s life. The lack of meaning among remote First Nations communities can often be traced back to colonialism, which was when Indigenous spirituality, connections to nature and traditional culture, were stripped away by Western institutions.

“What colonization was about was disconnecting Indigenous people from all their sources of meaning,” he said. “We really have been disconnected over 150 years from what gives us a strong reason for living.”

“People need to be empowered,” McCormick said. “They need to be connected.”

The lasting impacts of colonialism can be seen in First Nations suicide rates today, which McCormick said are roughly three times higher than the national average among males, and five times higher among females.

For grieving communities to move past the residual colonialist attitudes and make real strides toward better mental health, McCormick said they need to take control of their own healing and reach the point where they are capable of responding to a crisis without external support.

McCormick said peer support is often a useful tool, as it is difficult for remote populations to establish trust with visiting support workers who may not truly understand those they hope to treat. He also recommended examining success stories on both an individual and community level to determine which programs are most effective.

On Oct. 5, McCormick gave a presentation on Indigenous suicide to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs in Ottawa, where he discussed many of the same topics. In his speech, McCormick said Canada’s history of colonial assimilation separated Indigenous peoples from their primary sources of meaning, and argued reconnecting with traditional bases of strength was the best way to lower suicide rates.

“It’s easy to say and hard to do,” McCormick said, “but eventually we’ll get there.”

Dr. Carrie Bourassa, chair of Northern and Indigenous Health at Sudbury’s Health Sciences North Research Institute, said community empowerment is key to lowering suicide rates.

“The communities have the answers, I really can’t emphasize that enough,” she said. “But resources are another issue, and that’s where governments really need to step up.”

Bourassa said government responses must also extend beyond providing resources if they wish to address the root causes of suicide in First Nations communities.

“When you talk about indigenous determinants of health, it’s not just geographic location,” Bourassa said. “The Indian Act creates that isolation by virtue of how it controls what they can do on that land legally. Government can change that.”


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