Why Pointing Fingers Will Not Stop Aboriginal Youth Suicide

08/26/2013 05:32 EDT | Updated 10/26/2013 05:12 EDT

The Aboriginal community is reeling from the recent suicide of an 11-year-old boy in Nunavut.

And before the shock has even had a chance to wear off, the finger pointing began. Did the boy commit suicide because he was living in an isolated northern community? Did he suffer from abuse? Were mental health services not readily available? Was there not enough funding for suicide prevention programs?

The reality is that northern youth are more likely to dream about their funerals than their weddings. This needs to change, immediately.

While there is an obvious need for more accessible mental health services in the north, the majority of the blame cannot be shifted away from traditional support systems. A more proactive approach is required if we are to find meaningful solutions.

Local leaders are blaming the lack of access to available psychiatric, counseling and mobile crisis intervention facilities, generally available in the major cities, and are demanding an increase in funding for public programs. But, in fact, funding for suicide prevention strategies and other publicly-funded programs has already been increased.

The general population in the south is not enamored with life in northern isolated communities. Some have even suggested that, perhaps, it is time for everyone living in those communities to just move "down to the city" where they can have everything city-folk have and finally be happy. Sounds good, right?

But there are plenty of suicides in the city too, so that cannot be the solution. As it stands, 75 per cent of Aboriginal people in the north already leave the reserve/settlement/village. And, after all, cities have to be supplied with raw materials from somewhere and very few of them have farms, mines or oil rigs.

There has even been the suggestion that more research is required to determine the causes of youth suicide in order to find solutions. But while some causal insights may have been uncovered in previous research, many studies that have been conducted have produced very few solutions.

One common denominator from some of these studies suggests that youth suicide rates increase greatly in communities where youth have been exposed to suicide. This accounts for some Aboriginal communities that have experienced a rash of such suicides over a short period of time. The all-but-forgotten plea for help from the community of Pikangikum, Ont., last year comes to mind. Based on that community's experience, the process seems to play out with an immediate outpouring of public outrage, then sympathy and increased focus, only to dissipate as another tragedy occurs elsewhere and the spotlight moves away.

Experiences such as these have taught Northerner Aboriginals that it will be up to each community to deal with this issue on its own, with whatever resources happen to be available. The first step should be to take a good look at the socio-political culture of the community in question. Unemployment, education, substance abuse, physical and sexual abuse, socio-economic status and overall quality of life are the obvious factors and need to be addressed.

But perhaps there is also another factor that no one has considered.

Northerner Aboriginals have a tendency to glorify death without even realizing it. Schools, businesses and administrative offices all close down for a funeral in a small community. In some cases, wake ceremonies and other culturally-based death rituals can last for days. Young people are not immune to the sympathy directed at the deceased and imagine it for themselves. The message they are receiving may be that, in order to get everyone's attention, you need to die.

Aboriginal community members may need to step well outside of their comfort zones in order to protect the next generation. Funeral rites may need to become a private affair, not an excuse to close the office. Religious and spiritual leaders may have to censor aspects of their belief systems that exhort a superior existence in an afterlife (at least until impressionable youth have matured).

The most effective prevention strategy is to have a positive role model. Healthy kids need local heroes they can aspire to be like. Youth are looking around and seeing high-unemployment and substance abuse and are coming to the conclusion that if this is what they have to look forward to, they would rather die.

Although the solutions may infringe upon the most sacred of beliefs and the most established of habits, Aboriginal people need to ask themselves what is more important: placing blame or saving lives.

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