The chief of the remote northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat says health-care workers are “overwhelmed” after 11 people in the community of roughly 2,000 attempted to take their own lives on Saturday.
“We are trying to be positive here, but at the same we are emotionally drained,” Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Bruce Shisheesh told Global News Sunday evening. “Our staff is breaking down emotionally, I’m talking about counsellors.”
“When I look at the staff, we need relief for our workers. And also medical staff, they are overworked,” said Shisheesh, who declared a state of emergency following the spike in suicide attempts.
He said there have been roughly 100 attempts since August.
Shisheesh said he believes there are a several factors contributing to the high number of suicide attempts, including a housing crisis, bullying at schools and trauma from the legacy of Residential Schools.
AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde called the situation in Attawapiskat a “national tragedy” Monday and demanded action from government to deal with the crisis.
Bellegarde told Global News he has spoken with Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott and Ontario Health Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins.
“Human lives are at stake we know that,” said Bellegarde, adding he was pleased with the coordination between Ontario and Ottawa.
“On a national level what I am not happy with is this issue has been around for years and it’s been talked about many, many times that the suicide rate among young First Nations people is five to seven times the national average,” he said. “It’s like we are always really reacting. And there’s not a hell of lot of proactivity that is going on, proactive planning and strategies going on. That’s where we have to pick up our socks.”
Deputy Grand Chief Rebecca Friday of The Mushkegowuk Council said northern communities don’t have the resources to handle this kind of crisis.
“When you are dealing with crisis regarding a 10-year-old, we don’t have capacity at this level with resources,” Friday told Global News Sunday. “Meaning counselling for this individual, counselling for these middle aged people…that’s the capacity we are missing right here in Attawapiskat.”
WATCH: MP Charlie Angus on tragedy in Attawapiskat
Ontario and the federal government have both said crisis teams and counsellors have been sent to the community.
“Health Canada has dispatched two mental health counsellors to Attawapiskat as part of the NAN crisis response unit,” Health Minister Jane Philpott said in a statement.
First Nations mental health expert Rod McCormick said it’s not just Attawapiskat — First Nations communities across the country lack access to “to culturally relevant mental health services.”
“The long term strategy is to have the same level of services that the rest of Canadians have,” said McCormick, who is a professor of education and social work at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia.
Last Month, Cross Lake First Nation in northern Manitoba declared a state of emergency after six suicides in two months. And in Saskatchewan, three First Nations declared emergencies due to the high rates of suicide, addiction and mental health problems.
*With files from Jennifer Tryon and Adam Frisk