One in five aboriginals have contemplated suicide, report says

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Residential schools big part of reason

Aboriginals are nearly twice as likely to have had suicidal thoughts than other Canadians, a new study suggests.

And experts say the solution lies in social change.

Statistics Canada released a study this week on suicidal thinking among First Nations, Métis, and Inuit aged 26 to 59 who live off reserve.

The study found that more than one in five aboriginals reported having suicidal thoughts, compared to about one in 10 non-aboriginals.

About 11-to-14 per cent of non-aboriginal men and women (respectively) reported having such thoughts, compared to 21, 15, and 23 per cent of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit men and 26, 23, and 24 per cent of the same demographic of aboriginal women.

Suicidal thinking in aboriginals was higher in those with mood or anxiety disorders, drug use, or low self worth – three times higher in the case of First Nations men with mood/anxiety disorders and twice as high in the case of First Nations and Métis men who used drugs.

Direct or familial experience with residential schools was also significantly associated with suicidal thoughts amongst aboriginals, the study found.

Not surprised, say experts

Psychologist Richard Letendre, at Poundmaker’s Lodge, said he frequently encounters clients who have contemplated suicide while battling addictions.

“Historically speaking, between the residential schools that were set up and the intergenerational trauma that resulted from it, the effects are still being felt today.”

Roughly 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were placed in residential schools in Canada between the 1870s and 1996, reports the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

The residential schools took generations of aboriginals away from their families and churned out parents who didn’t know how to be parents, he explained. That, plus the racism and marginalization aboriginals face every day, drives many to self-medicate, Letendre said.

“When that happens, suicidal ideation would definitely come knocking.”

Suicide and self-inflicted injury are the leading causes of death for First Nations people 44 and younger, reports Calgary’s Centre for Suicide Prevention, with suicide rates being five to seven times higher than they are in non-aboriginals. The cultural shock of colonization, including residential schools, forced adoptions and relocations, all contribute to risk factors such as mental illness, low self-esteem, homelessness, and drug use.

Drug use changes the chemical nature of the brain so that dopamine (a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure) levels crash when you try to go clean, Letendre said. That impairs your judgment and makes you more likely to act on suicidal thoughts.

“The person’s mood is going to go straight down,” he said.

Culture is key

Preventing suicide in aboriginal Canadians means getting at the root causes of it, Currie said. So long as aboriginals still experience domestic violence and racism, we’ll still be on the treadmill when it comes to suicides.

“We can’t just sit on this. We need to think about solutions.”

She encouraged Canadians to read the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a start. Education programs, such as Australia’s Grade 1 to Grade 12 “Racism. No Way” initiative could help, as would greater access to mental health services.

Culture is another essential element, Letendre said.

“We define ourselves through our culture and our language,” he said, and become lost and unstable without them.

Culture gives you a support network that you need to be successful in life, he continued. He used to be a teacher, and saw how many struggling aboriginal students flourished once they got a taste of their cultural roots.

As for non-aboriginals, they need to educate themselves about aboriginal history and accept them as equals, Letendre said.

“When we stereotype, we sell a people short.”

The report is available at statcan.gc.ca.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.