Maskwacis rallying in response to ‘suicide crisis’
Alberta child advocate adds voice to concerns about ‘alarming’ suicide rate among aboriginal youth
By Gareth Hampshire, CBC News, Dec 3, 2015
First Nation leaders in Maskwacis say they are pleased there appears to be growing awareness at the provincial level about the shocking number of indigenous youths taking their own lives.
They were responding to a report released Tuesday by Alberta child and youth advocate Del Graff, which said that more than half the deaths or cases of serious injury under investigation by his office this year involved aboriginal youth who attempted or died by suicide.
The report said the advocate’s office will complete 13 investigative reviews this fiscal year, including eight involving aboriginal youth.
“This is cause for serious concern,” Graff said in the report, adding he plans to convene an expert committee to look into the problem and make recommendations.
In the four First Nation communities in Maskwacis, south of Edmonton, one Cree culture and education teacher last May described the high number of suicides there as “beyond crisis” and “an epidemic.”
But community leaders say things are beginning to stabilize after residents responded.
“They took it on their own, they’re kind of fed up and they want to help in any way they can,” said Randy Littlechild, executive director of health services in Maskwacis.
Littlechild said an estimated 16 people in Maskwacis took their own lives in 2014. That led to a major response from people living in the area. Some even posted their phone numbers through social media offering to take emergency calls from people who were feeling desperate.
‘It’s strictly volunteers’
“It’s great, but they’re doing this service without being paid, it’s strictly volunteers,” said Littlechild.
He noted the bands don’t get funding to pay for such a service and neither does the health centre. He said there’s growing hope now that the Alberta government will help fund a crisis line.
Like Littlechild, Theresia Boysis said she sees positive changes in Maskwacis. She’s working with a group of elders who offer traditional teachings to youth.
“We had 15 young people at our meeting the last time, and they ask the elders questions, different things,” said Boysis.
With Christmas coming, Boysis said she expects stress levels to increase in some families. She is reminding all levels of government more help is needed.
The Maskwacis health centre has received an additional $40,000 from Health Canada to use in suicide prevention programs. But Littlechild said there is still only enough funding for seven counsellors.
That means his staff are juggling big caseloads.
“I think that a formula needs to be developed by Health Canada, somewhat similar to our nursing program,” Littlechild said, noting the nursing program aims to have one full-time nurse for each fifteen hundred people.
Despite the steps being taken, Littlechild said he expects by the end of this year there will be a similar number of suicide deaths in Maskwacis compared to last year.
According to the province, there are plans to speak directly to leaders in Maskwacis, to listen to their concerns and any proposals they have. But so far the provincial government hasn’t received any formal funding requests.
The ministry of health said anyone in crisis can call the 24-hour Mental Health Helpline at 1-877-303-2642 FREE. It’s a confidential service that can offer crisis intervention as well as referrals to other agencies.