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Losing lives worth living

Aboriginal community working to develop solutions to youth suicide epidemic

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Sean Hunte was a young man who was just starting to realize his potential: he was viewed as a youth leader, he worked at a North End drop-in centre and, even though he was only 18 years old, he had already begun helping people.

His close friend Alyssa Ziolkoski, 20, says, "Sean had a huge impact on my life and honestly I will go as far as to say that he broke me out of my shell and let me be me again."

We will not know how far Hunte could have taken these gifts. Two weeks ago he took his own life.

Ziolkoski's reactions to Hunte's death are likely familiar to anyone who has been touched by suicide: "Sean's passing has left me lost, confused, sad, angry and many other countless emotions."

Some in the media have tied his death to the continued prevalence of suicide in indigenous communities. While not native himself, Hunte was considered a part of the community. If we are to make that connection, we should also look at the solutions the indigenous community is coming up with, as they may be able to help young people of all backgrounds.

Suicide is a virtual epidemic among indigenous people in Canada. Various studies peg the aboriginal youth suicide rate at between five and seven times the national average. This year, Neskantanga, an Ontario reserve, declared a "state of emergency" after two suicides and a rash of other attempts. This issue is also personal: I have lost a brother and older and younger cousins to suicide.

It is an unfortunate reality that this prevalence has led to a certain amount of expertise on this matter among indigenous people. So where are the solutions?

Last summer I had a chance to visit the Eskasoni Crisis Centre on the Cape Breton First Nation of the same name. It is located in a humble trailer in the middle of the reserve, but the approach there innovative. As you might expect, they have trained staff on call 24 hours a day to respond to people's calls for help. They also scour Facebook for status updates or other posts that suggest people may be at risk. When they find cause for concern, they call or drive over to check up on the person in question.

Suicide has not disappeared from Eskasoni, but it has declined sharply. Facebook can be a place where people post thoughts they are too afraid or dispirited to extend in the physical world. I have seen it myself. As those behaviours move online, so should our interventions.

There has also been research suggesting that indigenous culture can be a difference maker. British Columbia psychology professors Michael Chandler and Christopher Lalonde have found that cultural continuity is a hedge against suicide in B.C. First Nations. Put simply, communities that have their traditional languages and cultures do not have the same problems with suicide. This suggests that helping to revitalize indigenous cultures might reduce suicide in the long term.

In the short term, culture alone can not solve the problem. It likely needs to be combined with treatment for mental-health issues. But since we know culture does matter, we ought to make sure the treatments are done in a way that respects the culture of the person being treated. Perhaps the most notable thing that all Canadians can infer from reviewing Chandler and Lalonde's research is that suicide is not solely a problem of the individual. When it comes to helping our neighbours, relatives and children who are feeling hopeless, at least part of the answer is community.

Indigenous people have also started a dialogue about what happens after someone chooses to end their own life. This has led to support groups for those who have lost family members to suicide. On June 25, Winnipeg will host the annual "Circle of Life Gathering." There are two goals. One is to help people cope with their grief. The second is to underline the effects that suicide has on those left behind in the hopes that it might prevent further losses.

Contemplating those effect has helped Ziolkoski. While she acknowledges that she has thought about harming herself, now she has a healthier outlook.

"At the end of the day I realize how many people would miss me, how many lives my passing would impact, how if I was to take my own life how that would look to my younger friends who are struggling," she says. "I try to keep a positive mindset and keep pushing forward in hopes that one day all those struggles will allow others to have hope."

There is no silver lining when it comes to suicide. We are all poorer when we lose a young person like Hunte. Perhaps, though, that experience, properly reflected upon, can prevent us from losing more like him.


Wab Kinew is the Director of Indigenous Inclusion at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 9, 2013 C3

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