I need to talk about suicide. Not anybody’s favourite subject at Christmas time, I know. But I need to get a few things off my chest. Please bear with me, I appreciate that it is an uncomfortable topic.
In the past couple of weeks, I have lost three cousins to suicide, hitting both sides of the family and leaving everybody particularly unhappy about this Christmas holiday. I cannot and will not discuss the nature of their passings, but to say that they will be missed and that I am unsure if we will understand why they chose the path they chose. There is no cause in blaming them for what they did, everybody has a choice, we must wonder though, what made them believe this was the only choice left to them, as my brother mentioned recently. As well, we must not blame ourselves for the actions of others, to do so will only carry us down into something that we cannot necessarily get out of.
I started 2010 dealing with the fallout of a suicide. A young man from one of our local communities went into the river on New Years’ Day. The official word is that it was an accident but the students I worked with refuse to believe that. I do not know for sure, and for the purposes of my job as the First Nations Support Coordinator at my school, neither I nor my FN Support Workers could treat it as such. Whether a suicide or not, the trauma the kids would be dealing with was something we could not ignore. The sad thing about this whole episode was not so much the loss of such a promising young man to the world, but the fact that our preparations at school turned out to be unnecessary. The kids seemed resigned to it. Used to it.
Health Canada has a report, Acting on What We Know: Preventing Youth Suicide in First Nations, which states the following in its executive summary:
Suicide among First Nations youth has been occurring at an alarming rate in recent years. Statistics show an Aboriginal suicide rate two to three times higher than the non-Aboriginal rate for Canada, and within the youth age group the Aboriginal suicide rate is estimated to be five to six times higher than that of non-Aboriginal youth.
Well, duh. There are a lot of reasons for the high rates of suicide in Aboriginal communities. I won’t go into many of them hear, but suffice it to say, colonialism, residential school affect, poverty, hopelessness all play a role. I also cannot stress enough that that pat answer I just made runs the risk of generalizing a complex issue and I don’t want to do that, but I also do not want to get bogged down in some intense and painful issues. I have had uncomfortable conversations with people who I was scared were going to hurt themselves. I have had to frantically work the phones trying to track kids that I was terrified we were going to lose.
The report makes some recommendations:
The recommendations listed below fall into four main themes: (1) increasing knowledge about what works in suicide prevention; (2) developing more effective and integrated health care services at national, regional and local levels; (3) supporting community-driven approaches; and (4) creating strategies for building youth identity, resilience and culture.
I think numbers 3 and 4 may be the more important of the bunch, but I don’t know. I didn’t read much beyond the executive summary. Don’t want to right now.
An interesting side note. My three cousins were not youth. They were all adults. My age or older.
I am terrified that our children are getting used to suicide. I am not used to it, despite having had to deal with it periodically and peripherally. I don’t want to get used to it. I worry that we are losing whole generations to the affects of suicide. I am not saying that they will commit suicide; I am saying that whole generations are being affected by suicide and who knows what the damage will be.
So, I guess I should link this to education. How are we as educators offering hope to our students of Aboriginal ancestry? How are we ensuring that they are building a positive understanding of who they are and who they deserve to be? How are we ensuring that the public education system, built, as it is on a westernized colonial system, isn’t reinforcing the cultural hierarchies and stereotypes that place the Native on the bottom of society? How are we ensuring that they are not internalizing the institutional racism that Canada is built upon and taking it home to eat them up? How are we ensuring that our students know that the legacies of colonialism and residential schools are not their fault? They will face many challenges that other Canadians will not face. Are we preparing them to survive and thrive?
I can’t answer these questions by myself, and you may not like my answers.
A friend of mine, in encouraging me to start my blog, recommended always show hopefulness in your writing or you will scare people away. I get that, I understand that, but I needed to talk about this. I would argue that there is hope in these words. They may be hard to see, but they are there. Another colleague, in talking about challenges in her community, was angry and said “look at it, don’t look away.” So, there you have it, I need you to take a look and ask yourselves is this acceptable? I need you to see what’s at stake.