Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, North America, Population

HEALTH: Native Youth Suicides in Canada Reach Crisis Rate

Am Johal

VANCOUVER, Dec 12 2007 (IPS) - Suicide rates are now five to seven times higher for First Nations youth than for non-aboriginal youth, according to Health Canada, and among Inuit youth, suicide rates are 11 times the national average. Some aboriginal bands have suicide rates over 800 times the national average.

In northern British Columbia, in the rural Hazelton region, the Wrinch Memorial Hospital has seen 111 suicide attempts since Jan. 1, 2007. There were also unreported suicide attempts, so the number is believed to be much higher. In November, there were seven suicide attempts in one week alone.

The local Royal Canadian Mounted Police attachment has told media outlets that it is not uncommon to get one or two suicide calls a day in the area.

“Our community has had historically high unemployment for the last eight years – almost 90 percent,” Sharon Robertson, the CEO of Wrinch Memorial Hospital, told IPS.

“We have the worst socio-economic indicators in the province. We don’t have a lot of services that we need. Our demographics are primarily First Nations. The forest industry is being hit hard. We need to get rid of drugs and alcohol and bring some structure and order in to the community,” she said.

More than 150 people attended a community meeting on the problem in Hazelton last week. “The feedback from young people was really good,” Robertson said. “We have separate service providers and we need to coordinate our activities better to provide good care for people here. We don’t have a good way to deal with local crisis responses because we’re a small town. The hospital is often full and isn’t equipped to deal with these issues very well.”

Though healthcare is a provincial responsibility, representatives from Health Canada have been present at the recent community meetings. Health Canada is often involved when a situation becomes heightened. If a public health emergency is declared, federal health dollars can also be released in the region to deal with the issues.

Robertson added that there are no safe houses for young people if they feel that they have nowhere to go.

Victor Robinson, a member of the neighbouring Gitanmaax First Nation and administrator of the Glen Vowell First Nation Band, co-chaired the meeting last week.

“When we had this meeting, we were trying to reach answers and solutions,” he told IPS. “We found that service agencies, mental health and other intervention services – there were no protocols to link all of them. We need to accomplish that to provide a service in the area so that people don’t threaten themselves.”

Robinson added that there were youth representatives at the session. “In addition to economic hardship, there needs to be recreational activities, and there has to be youth-oriented activities. Service agencies need a more coordinated approach. We don’t link well with other programmes. We have to keep the youth engaged.”

“The biggest issue is the ongoing boundaries between the provincial and federal governments,” Robinson added. “As a result, human beings fall through the cracks.”

According to the Assembly of First Nations, a national aboriginal advocacy organisation, life expectancy at birth has improved among the First Nations’ population. In 2000, it rose to 68.9 years for males and 76.6 years for females, an increase from 1980 of 13.1 percent and 12.6 percent respectively, but still five to seven years below the national average.

The 1999 First Nations’ infant mortality was 8.0 deaths per 1,000 live births – or 1.5 times higher than the Canadian infant mortality rate of 5.5.

Among First Nations men between the ages of 15 and 24, the rate is 126 per 100,000 compared to 24 per 100,000 for young Canadian men. Young women from First Nations registered a rate of 35 per 100,000 versus only 5 per 100,000 for Canadian women.

The proportion of Canada’s total AIDS cases contracted by Aboriginal people also climbed from 1.0 percent in 1990 to 6.2 percent in 2001, six times the national average. There are concerns that HIV/AIDS may reach epidemic proportions among First Nations.

Overcrowded housing, mould, and unsafe drinking water helps spread communicable diseases at a rate 10 to 12 times higher than the national average, according to government figures. More than 40 percent of homes are considered to be inadequate shelter.

The First Nations Action and Support Team, or FAST, an initiative of the regional health board, will work in communities which have recently recorded a high rate of suicides, according to the CBC.

Health Canada also funds programmes under the National Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy.

According to a federal government report, suicide has accounted for about two percent of annual deaths in the general Canadian population since the late 1970s. In both males and females, the greatest increase between 1960 and 1991 occurred in the 15-to-19-year age group, with a four-and-a-half-fold increase for males, and a three-fold increase for females.

A Suicide Prevention Advisory Group did produce a vague federal government report in 2002 focussing on aboriginal suicides. It recommended that the federal government provide youth with opportunities and settings to encourage positive mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health and pathways to a positive future, and to share their perspectives on suggested suicide prevention strategies.

It also recommended that they augment the available sources of support for youth, including parents, peers, role models and elders.

The Assembly of First Nations has continued to criticise the federal and provincial government for slow movement on changing socio-economic numbers which clearly show a major gap in poverty rates and over-representation in the criminal justice system by First Nations people.

Neal Belanger, executive health director of the Gitxsan Health Society in Hazelton, told IPS, “First Nations have been clearly affected since colonisation and other policies such as the effects of residential schools [in which native youth were separated from their families and culture]. It is an economically depressed region.”

“Hopefully, we can address this,” he said. “We have to get through the Christmas season and have support personnel in place. We’ve accessed restricted funding over the holidays. We are working with the provincial and federal governments. We are continuing to hold public meetings. People will have services in place if they need them.”

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