It was with great concern I read last week about an unbelievably high suicide problem in the northern Manitoba First Nations community of Cross Lake. Reports of about 140 suicide attempts in two weeks prompted the tribal leadership to declare a state of emergency.
When I was editor of the Mountaineer newspaper in Rocky Mountain House from 2007 to 2012, a similar issue was brought to the community’s attention. A shockingly high number of suicides and attempts were occurring, and the issue was brought forward by medical, emergency and police personnel.
The issue in the Rocky area was not a “First Nations” problem; it was identified by emergency personnel as existing on First Nations reserves, in Rocky and in the surrounding rural municipality and hamlets. It was affecting men and women, along with children. It was said that some of the suicide attempts involved children under the age of six years.
The community, including urban, rural, First Nations, government and industry, formed a community initiative called Communities Celebrating Life with the goals of bringing members together to understand suicide, the factors contributing to suicide attempts in the area and trying to do something about it. Most leaders in the community agreed that the initiative not only helped shine a light on suicide, but brought people in the region together. Not an easy thing to do.
As the local newspaper editor, I was involved in the initiative, and learned a lot about suicide and its connections to mental health and addictions. Mistakenly believing suicide was rare or affected few people, I learned how common suicide is: in 2009, suicide was the sixth leading cause of death in Alberta according to a StatsCan report.
Realizing that if I wanted to write about a social problem, I had to learn more about it I took a brief course called “SafeTALK,” which gave an introductory look at suicide. Did you know that of those who attempt suicide but survive, the majority say they did it because they didn’t have anyone to talk to about their problems?
I also took a two-day mental health first aid course, which really provided some eye-opening information about the relationship between suicide and mental health. The course taught me, “Mental health problems often first develop during adolescence or early adulthood, with half of all mental disorders beginning by age 14, and 75 per cent beginning by age 24.” The course also taught me that there’s a relationship between substance abuse, addiction and mental health. I’m not trying to oversimplify, but it seems to me that a community-wide suicide issue like the one I saw in Rocky Mountain House (and, I believe, probably exists in many parts of Alberta) may involve mental health issues starting in youth sometimes being exacerbated by addictions later in life and possibly resulting in a sense of loneliness and, sometimes, resulting in a suicide attempt.
When I studied journalism in college, I was told not to report on suicide “because it encourages other people to commit suicide.” I made the mistake of accepting that spurious statement without questioning it. Now I realize the best approach is to shine a bright light on issues like mental health, violence, addictions and suicide. Working with Communities Celebrating Life I discovered suicide is a choice. And those communities chose life.
Stu Salkeld is the new editor of the Leduc/Wetaskiwin Pipestone Flyer and writes a regular column for the paper.