Attawapiskat suicides: A mental health problem?

In the past week a number of suicides in the northern indigenous community of Attawapiskat have been getting a lot of national and international attention. I hear over and over again that these are the result of a mental health and health care problem.

We hear that what is needed in this community are mental health workers. Last weekend the Globe and Mail published an article on a failed mental health project in Attawapiskat that cost $800,000 and had nothing to show for itself except a contact list of service providers in the region, a culturally relevant suicide risk-assessment tool and two suicide-intervention training sessions for frontline workers. This result and waste is embarrassing but unfortunately all too familiar for a bureaucratic, regional health authority approach to problem solving.

The Attawapiskat suicide problem is not primarily a mental health issue. To be sure, there is a mental health outcome just like homelessness and poverty elsewhere in the country have mental health outcomes. However, calling this a mental health crisis does the community and country a disservice.

Viewing the situation through this lens focuses intervention in the wrong place. It wouldn’t matter if the government sent every mental health worker in the country to Attawapiskat – this alone would not solve the problems there or in countless other remote and impoverished, aboriginal communities.

Even if we put aside the years of racism and colonialism faced by Canada’s indigenous communities, if we don’t account for the issues resulting from the multi-generational effects of residential schools or the continued lack of equal treatment for aboriginal citizens in our country, the problems in communities like Attawapiskat run deep.

Even without considering the racially motivated and complex issues, if you put yourself in the position of an adolescent growing up in a community like this you can see why there are feelings of hopelessness and despair.

Young people in this community have almost nothing. They live in crowded, dilapidated surroundings without adequate sanitation or nutrition. Educational, vocational and recreational opportunities are extremely limited. They are surrounded by substance abuse, unemployment and neglect. There is precious little to look forward to. Under these conditions, it is not surprising the young people feel suicide is an option. Most people do not want to die if living is better.

The crisis in Attawapiskat could be attributed to many things – but it is in large part a systems problem and will require a comprehensive solution. Let’s not talk about solving the problem by simply sending in a mental health worker or setting up a health care solution regardless of how expensive and comprehensive it may be. Before that, we need community infrastructure. Attawapiskat and other communities like it need reliable clean water and proper sanitation systems. They need access to education, jobs, adequate nutrition, community engagement and a sense of purpose. Finally, they do also need adequate health care including mental health care.

Solving these issues will be expensive but these things are long overdue and should long since have been part of every community in Canada.



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