Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Native youth suicide stats numbing

More females die because hanging preferred method

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Last May, a Free Press reader who is almost 80 saw an article in the paper about children that noted, among other facts, that Manitoba has more per capita than any other province.

Then he emailed me with something that, to him, appeared to be missing from the demographics of our soaring population of children.

"There is no mention of child suicides."

It might have seemed an odd thought, were it not for a radio interview he alluded to hearing the day before.

"Yesterday morning," he wrote, "a youth worker in the North End was interviewed about the suicide of one of his colleagues. He was asked how many suicides there have been in recent times. He estimated he knew of about 10 suicides in the last couple of years among kids under 18. TEN, UNDER 18.

"Can that possibly be true?

"If so, why isn't it in the headlines?"

-- -- --

The overall numbers are numbing.

The office of the chief medical officer reports that during the 10-year period between 2003 and 2012, the office of the chief medical officer has recorded 154 deaths by suicide among children and youth between the ages of 12 and 17.

Not that there weren't even younger children -- and older youths -- who tried and succeeded. In 2011, when 10 kids who died by suicide -- the lowest number in that decade-long period -- another 11 youths, aged 18 and 19, also died by suicide.

The medical examiner doesn't track the deaths by ethnicity, but not surprisingly, aboriginal youth are alarmingly over-represented, to the point of probably being in the majority. Nearly half the deaths are on reserves.

Moreover, in recent years, Manitoba is bucking a long-standing trend that's known as the gender paradox, where far more males die by suicide, but far more females make the attempt.

The Children's Advocate uses a fiscal year to track deaths by suicide, but the statistics tell the same story.

"What is striking," province's deputy children's advocate, Corey La Berge responded in an email, "is that of 16 suicides last year for children aged 12 to 17, 11 of them were female. More than twice as many girls took their own life last year as boys."

It was a similar story the year before; 10 girls, and three boys.

"We don't have data over enough time to define trends," La Berge cautioned, "however the gender differences we've seen over the last couple of years warrant further investigation. It is certainly inconsistent with prevailing understandings."

One reason young females are dying in greater numbers may have to do with the preferred method of choice.

Hanging.

Unlike taking an overdose of pills, hanging leaves little hope for being saved. And the vast majority of those 154 minors -- 137 by count -- died by hanging.

As I was saying, the numbers are numbing.

Until you put a face and a story to one of them.

Samantha Jensson was aboriginal, female, and the daughter of a woman who also died by suicide.

When Samantha was six years old she found her mother, Darlene James, hanging in the bathroom from a blow-dryer cord.

That's what's known as intergenerational trauma, and it's as common, and deadly, as the preferred method of dying among First Nations children.

Nine years later, Samantha hanged herself.

Except she chose to do it in a public place, with an orange extension cord.

A passerby found her near the corner of Bishop Grandin Boulevard and St. Mary's Road.

Samantha had overdosed twice before. When she finally succeeded, in the spring of 2009, I wrote about how her body was found hanging low in the branches of a small, lonely tree that had once produced apples which, like the children who live nearby, were the joy of the neighbourhood.

Last week, provincial Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard summoned me to a meeting in his office with Samantha's father and grandfather.

The inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair and the probing of Child and Family Services' responsibility in it had just ended and Gerrard wanted Samantha's family to tell me what they told him. That when Samantha had asked a CFS worker what they would do if she had a child, he told her they would take it away. The suggestion being that led to her suicide.

It's never that simple.

Nothing is.

-- -- --

Those numbing numbers, and Samantha's story, forced me to recall another column, about another aboriginal child from inner-city Winnipeg who hanged himself with his mother's favourite scarf.

He was 11 years old.

I ended the column this way.

In the 100 years since Louis Riel was executed while fighting for native self-determination and native self-respect, Canada has come a long way.

We don't hang native men anymore. Now 11-year-old native boys hang themselves.

That was 25 years ago.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 8, 2013 B1

History

Updated on Thursday, August 8, 2013 at 8:35 AM CDT: replaces photo

8:44 AM: removes unnecessary word

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