05/15/2012 03:04 EDT | Updated 07/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Ottawa is offering help to suicide-pained Vancouver Island First Nation

VICTORIA - It's not uncommon for the chief of Vancouver Island's Cowichan Tribes to receive a call from a suicidal tribal resident.

Chief Harvey Alphonse responds as best he can, but just isn't properly trained to handle distraught people, says acting tribal health officer Jennifer Jones.

The chief has declared a local state of emergency over a disturbing spike in suicides and attempted suicides in his community.

Jones said Tuesday she welcomed pledges of social and emotional help from Ottawa and the British Columbia government during the troubling times in the Duncan area, where four males have taken their lives recently and 52 others are on suicide watch.

"The chief and band general manager get calls for suicides," she said. "Now we have other people being called who have not been trained in providing suicide prevention techniques."

Alphonse related a tragic personal incident where a male friend told him he was considering suicide, but the chief said he didn't have the time to listen right away and 30 minutes later his friend was dead.

Two federal ministers wrote the Cowichan Tribes on Tuesday offering help. Staff from B.C.'s aboriginal relations and reconciliation ministry are also on the way, meeting with Chief Alphonse on Friday.

"Our top priority is to work with your health team to identify resources to help respond as quickly as possible," said Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan in their letter.

"Health Canada can assist in making mental health professionals available to help in situations such as this."

The letter added that a top B.C. bureaucrat will be on hand to help in any way possible.

Alphonse publicly called for help from the federal and provincial governments on Monday.

He said a pervasive sense of hopelessness, which hangs over much of the Cowichan nation, has also led to 52 suicide alerts in his east coast Vancouver Island community this year.

Alphonse said he wanted Duncan to visit Cowichan, where he can view first-hand the threats to his community's primary asset, the youth.

Jones said the early government contact has given rise to some sense of optimism among First Nations officials, but Cowichan is looking for more than short-term help.

She said Cowichan Tribes is seeking permanent funding to hire two new full-time mental health counsellors. The First Nation currently has nine counsellors: one for mental health, five for drug and alcohol and three for youth.

"I would like to say we need two more counsellors, and we need to have the resources to maintain that," she said. "Our counsellors are getting burned out. We're more of a reactive approach than a preventive approach."

Suicide alerts, which track suicide attempts and threats among Cowichan Tribes members, has been rising over the last decade, she said.

From 2002 to 2007, Cowichan Tribes recorded 105 suicide alerts; from 2007 to 2011, it recorded 258 alerts; and so far this year there's already been 52.

Jones said the First Nation does not have exact suicide numbers over the same time period because some occur within reserve lands and others are off reserve, but suicides among First Nations appear to be increasing throughout Vancouver Island.

Several other Vancouver Island First Nations have publicly struggled with suicides.

The remote Ahousaht First Nation, home to Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo, called in health professionals and counsellors in 2005 after the suicides of two males prompted 65 other alerts.

Ahousaht Coun. Anne Atleo said at the time that people were being called out at all hours to talk to despondent people. She said people would come to homes where people had lined up pills or were holding weapons.

B.C.'s aboriginal relations and reconciliation minister Mary Polak said the province is sending one of her top deputy ministers to Cowichan Friday to meet with the chief and some members of his council and staff.

"It's deeply concerning, but we need to remember that along with our deep concern for Cowichan Tribes, there is an overarching problem for First Nations ... and that is that the rate of suicides in First Nations is extremely high," said Polak.

The B.C. Coroners Service reports 478 suicides in the province in 2008. The numbers are not broken down by aboriginals and non-aboriginals, but indicate a drop in the suicide rate overall. That breaks down to 10.9 suicides for every 100,000 people.

Some 12 years earlier, the suicide numbers were 15.3 suicides for every 100,000 people.

Other reports indicate that aboriginals in B.C. die by suicide 70 per cent more often than non-aboriginals, with Vancouver Island having the highest rate of aboriginal suicide in the province.

A July 2001 joint federal government and Assembly of First Nations report on preventing suicides among First Nations youth found suicide occurs roughly five to six times more often among First Nations youth than non-aboriginal youth in Canada.

The report cited federal health statistics comparing First Nations and non-aboriginal suicide rates from 1989-1993 for ages 0-14 and 15-24 years old. It concluded suicide rates for young aboriginal men were extremely high.

The report found the suicide rate among aboriginal men aged between 15 and 24 years was 126 for every 100,000 people, compared to 24 for every 100,000 non-aboriginal Canadian males of the same age.

A spokesman for Aglukkaq said Ottawa is also sending officials to Cowichan.

"That's the intent," said spokesman Steve Outhouse. "We have the program in place exactly for situations like this. We have mental health professionals, medical officials that if a community needs some short-term help or stabilization of a crisis situation, that they can be mobilized and sent."

Health Canada currently provides $3.7 million annually to Cowichan Tribes, with $145,000 ear-marked for suicide prevention and $180,000 for mental health services.

Duncan and Aglukkaq offered their condolences to the Cowichan Tribes families grieving for their loved ones.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with those families who are dealing with loss at this time," stated the letter.