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Natan Obed, Inuit Leader, Says Understanding Why Suicide Occurs Is Key To Stopping It

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Inuit and those who provide mental-health services to them need to reach a common understanding of why suicide is so common in their communities before they can deal with it, says Canada's national Inuit group.

"The first step is to educate and encourage Inuit to believe in a common narrative around why suicide happens the way it does and what we need to do together to prevent suicide," said Natan Obed, head of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

"If we are at peace with that question, then we can focus on solutions in a way that we can't if we are still not quite sure why it's happening the way that it is."

Obed was in Kuujjuaq, Que., on Wednesday to release the group's paper on suicide prevention. It's Canada's first national strategy to deal with the ongoing crisis of why so many Inuit — especially young people — take their own lives.

nathan obed
Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. (Photo: Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott was also there to announce $9 million to help implement it.

"We are committed to working directly with Inuit leaders on issues that are important to them, including turning the tide of suicide that is having a devastating impact on Inuit youth, families and communities," Philpott said in a release.

Suicide has long been a major public health issue in the four regions of Canada populated primarily by Inuit.

In the Inuvialuit region of the Northwest Territories, the suicide rate is 60 per 100,000 people. In Nunavik, Que., the rate is 114. Nunavut's rate is 117 and Nunatsiavut in Labrador has a rate of 275.

The Canadian average is 11.

"A simplistic concept of suicide prevention for indigenous peoples, for Inuit, is one that we're not interested in."

For Inuit males between 15 and 29, the rate is almost 40 times the national figure.

Governments, mental-health groups and aboriginal organizations need to look at what influences suicide risk during an Inuit person's life, from the womb to adulthood, Obed said.

"A simplistic concept of suicide prevention for indigenous peoples, for Inuit, is one that we're not interested in."

The strategy lays out what is known about suicide risk factors for Inuit. They include historical traumas such as residential schools, social inequities such as poverty or overcrowded housing, poor mental-health supports and short-term stresses such as the breakup of a relationship.

"...no matter how much money you have, you still have things that you need that are related to your mental health."

Obed said the problem can't be solved by focusing on any one of them.

"If you have a job, but you aren't able to love your children the way that you could if you overcame the trauma that you experienced during childhood, then no matter how much money you have, you still have things that you need that are related to your mental health.

"An addiction in-patient care facility is not the overarching solution either."

Inuit have to develop a common understanding of the problem they all share, he said. He pointed out that Nunavut has had a suicide prevention strategy since 2010 that hasn't appreciably reduced rates, despite people's hard work.

"The purpose of this national strategy, first and foremost, is so that Inuit can be more at peace with 'why.'"

Health, justice, education and social services all have to be part of the answer, the strategy says.

Obed acknowledges the document doesn't contain specific policy recommendations. That comes later.

"What we need to do is get everyone on the same page.

"The purpose of this national strategy, first and foremost, is so that Inuit can be more at peace with 'why.'"

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