April 5, 2020

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When kids see suicide as the only option

A cemetery at Attawapiskat First Nation, which saw a rash of youth suicides this year.</p>

A cemetery at Attawapiskat First Nation, which saw a rash of youth suicides this year.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/5/2016 (1409 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Child-welfare workers and advocates have noted for years the children who come into care are much more damaged than what had been seen in the past. A report on suicide out of the Office of the Children’s Advocate this week illustrates just how complicated and difficult their lives are. For many, they are dying young because suicide looks better than what life holds for them.

The office looked at a group of 50 youth, aged 12 to 17, who had been in care between 2009 and 2013 and died by suicide, and compared their lives to a similar group of 100 youth in care who did not die by suicide. There were similarities in risk factors, as one might expect for children apprehended by the state. But the risks were much more prevalent in the first group.

For instance, almost 70 per cent of the 50 youth who died by suicide had relatives who had attempted or died by suicide, compared to 40 per cent for those youth called the "control group." The report cites research that has found a dangerous normalization of suicide for some youth at risk, particularly in First Nations communities. The elevated suicide rate among aboriginal people is well-documented. About 90 per cent of the 10,000-plus children in care in Manitoba are indigenous.

Further, among the youth who died by suicide, 74 per cent had a history of alcohol or drug misuse, while 72 per cent of them had parents who used substances. That’s much higher than in the control group. There were also higher rates of criminal justice involvement, poor attendance at school and physical abuse in the home within the group that died by suicide.

The findings point to the extent of trauma experience by youth when they were very young. Childhood trauma — physical abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, apprehension from their home — sees kids growing up with a very different view of life compared to children in stable, nurturing homes. They have difficulty attaching to an adult, see life as precarious and develop more behavioural issues. They are constantly on high alert, and a steady dose of the fight-or-flight hormone taxes the nervous system and rewires the brain. They become impulsive, aggressive and have difficulty concentrating. They fare poorly in school and have difficulty bonding socially.

So they get involved in crime, fall vulnerable to exploitation, become defiant and learn to trust no one. And that leads to real abandonment, as the closing passages of the children’s advocate report notes:

"After years of neglect, abuse, family and community breakdown, violence and risk-taking behaviours, some adolescents are among the most challenging clients a (child-welfare) agency may have on its caseload.

"Too often these youth are labelled ‘manipulative,’ ‘resistant,’ ‘self-absorbed,’ or ‘selfish’... Some youth lose the empathy of their workers, who no longer seem to recognize the challenging behaviours as symptoms of unresolved trauma and unmet needs." Finally: "The culture of blame comes to focus on the youth, and their trauma histories are forgotten or dismissed."

Suicide flows naturally from the loss of hope and the burden of abject despair.

This report feels like a precursor to a much deeper investigation by health and child-welfare authorities. There has to be better detection and intervention for high-risk children. The real answer is to invest upfront, to keep families from fracturing and supporting parents who need help.

But immediately, the dearth of intensive services in Manitoba for children with complex needs has been clearly outlined in previous studies. The finding that front-line child-welfare workers are also giving up on adolescents — likely desperate themselves, for the lack of options — is most worrisome. What is the last line of protection for badly damaged and despairing youth, if not those who are trained, and paid, to keep kids safe? We cannot expect them to catch the most vulnerable when the net is full of holes.


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