Thirteen young people in Attawapiskat were taken to hospital Monday night over fears of a suicide pact just days after the northern Ontario community declared a state of emergency after 11 suicide attempts over the weekend.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum told Global News Tuesday concern for the young people’s welfare was brought to the attention of police and community workers Monday.
“It was brought to our attention that these young individuals were overheard talking about committing suicide that night, which would have been Monday,” Achneepineskum said, adding that the youngest person in the group was nine years old.
Ian Manion, director of youth mental health research with The Royal’s Institute of Mental Health Research in Ottawa, said when there is a suicide in a small community it has a “ripple” effect.
“One person dies by suicide, and everyone knows that person, it ripples throughout the entire community,” Manion told Global News. “If you are a caregiver in that community, if you are a mental health worker or a nurse or a health practitioner you probably not only know that person, you may have cared for that person, you may be related to that person.”
There have been roughly 100 suicide attempts since August, Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh told Global News. Shisheesh said he believes several factors have contributed to the high number of suicide attempts, including a housing crisis, bullying at schools and trauma from the legacy of residential schools. The community has a population of about 2,000.
“When we are talking about trauma we know that the impact can be intergenerational,” Manion said. “Some of the conversations we have with people on First Nations and especially in remote communities, they have talked about how they may have lost a generation of parenting. They don’t know what it is like to be a parent, and in turn aren’t quite sure what to do, or how to support a person especially in trying times.”
Two Attawapiskat residents, one of them a 13-year-old girl, have killed themselves in the past several months, giving the community a suicide rate of 100 per 100,000 people, according to Ontario government data obtained by Global News. The Canadian rate is 11.3.
Interactive: Compare suicide rates between Ontario postal codes in the map below
Achneepineskum said the young people in Monday’s incident were taken to hospital over fears of a “suicide pact.”
“When you have a group of young people, and this number, and that they are talking in a group about taking their lives to me that defines a suicide pact,” she said. “When children are talking about suicide that is a call for help, we have to start working together.”
Nishnawbe Aski Nation is an organization representing 49 First Nation communities in northern Ontario.
Manion said the crisis in Attawapiskat highlights the need for a long-term mental health plan.
“When you have young people that are struggling with how they are coping and they start to congregate and talk about how difficult their situation is, sometimes young people engage together to do protective things but sometimes they congregate together to do things that are not so protective,” Manion told Global News.
“There are things that young people might actually do that they would never do alone. But when they think others are in the same situation there is a bit of a snowball effect.”
Health Canada said Tuesday an additional 18 additional people — including a crisis co-ordinator, two youth support workers and a psychologist — have been deployed as temporary crisis relief in Attawapiskat.
Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott called the crisis “completely unacceptable.”
“It is completely unacceptable in a country as rich in resources as Canada that young people should get to the point that their life seems worthless and they would want to end it,” she said Tuesday.
The House of Commons will hold an emergency debate this evening to address the crisis that is scheduled to begin at approximately 6:40 p.m. ET.
NDP MP Charlie Angus, the MP for the area and NDP indigenous affairs critic, told Global’s The Morning Show the crisis should never have been allowed to “spiral this far.”
“We need to make sure that young people have access to mental health services when they need it, as opposed to the process right now where it is just denial, denial, denial, whenever there is requests for support for these young people,” he said. “We need to augment the police in the community because they are so underfunded.”
AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde said the situation in Attawapiskat is a”national tragedy” that has been around for years.
“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 told Global News. “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.”
Achneepineskum said the community needs more resources and additional staff on a long term commitment.
“They haven’t had a youth mental health worker in the community for close to 11 months,” she said. “There has to be some efforts to have consistent resources and some proactive, preventive measures.
“Parenting, sexual abuse awareness, those things need to be available for the community.”
*With files from Jennifer Tryon, Anna Mehler Paperny and Patrick Cain