Ont. coroner examines spate of First Nation youth suicides
Published Sunday, July 17, 2011 12:42PM EDT
TORONTO - Janice started abusing solvents when she was 10, the same year she spent her first of many nights in a police cell. At 12, she first attempted suicide.
In the next few years she was transferred more than a dozen times between her Pikangikum First Nation home in northwestern Ontario and foster homes, treatment centres, hospitals, youth facilities and jails outside her community.
Janice didn't go to school, received no ongoing therapy and abused alcohol and solvents until she killed herself at age 16.
The heartbreaking tale of Janice -- not her real name -- is laid bare in research presented by the office of the chief coroner of Ontario on an extraordinarily high rate of youth suicides in Pikangikum.
Between 2006 and 2008 on the First Nation, 16 young people between the ages of 10 and 19 killed themselves. The number becomes even more striking when put in the context of the fly-in community's overall population of 2,400.
To further bring the number into focus: provincially there are between 40 and 50 suicides per year in that age group.
Young people in Pikangikum have been committing suicide "at an extraordinary rate for a number of years," the coroner's office found in its research.
"The themes that emerged from a review of the circumstances of the deaths and the lives of the youth, was not a story of capitulation to death, but rather a story of stamina, endurance, tolerance and resiliency stretched beyond human limits until finally, they simply could take no more."
A lot of the problem has to do with hopelessness, said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Stan Beardy. People kill themselves when they can no longer deal with the pain in their lives, and it's tragic that he's seen children as young as nine get to that point.
"That is our challenge, to say, 'What needs to be done to provide hope for those young children?"' Beardy said.
"I think as people it's hope that keeps us going ... That is why most people get up in the mornings."
Janice's story is a sad one, but not unlike the situations the other 15 children found themselves in before they took their own lives, said Dr. Bert Lauwers, the deputy chief coroner for investigations in Ontario.
"The themes are constant and they re-occur," he said in an interview. "There's this whole issue of substance abuse in the parents, lack of school engagement and attendance, domestic violence in the home, suicide in the nuclear family and beyond, some will have had a history of mental health (issues)."
A unique feature of the spate of Pikangikum suicides is that many happened in clusters, with several happening within 30 days of each other.
"What happens is the first suicide occurs and it has a contagion effect within the community," Lauwers said.
That's what happened when Janice tried to kill herself at age 12. She said she did so because her best friend had killed herself two weeks prior and was one of eight girls in the community who had made a suicide pact.
"It's so devastating," Beardy said. "When you have a series of them within a short period there is never time to properly deal with the grieving so it gets very compounded."
To mitigate this phenomenon, a crisis intervention team should be put in place after a youth suicide to identify vulnerable children and provide them with immediate counselling, Lauwers said.
The "most troubling" factor at play in Pikangikum is the solvent abuse problem, the coroner's report said. More than one-quarter of girls in Grades 3 and 4 have self-reported sniffing gasoline.
A lack of health-care continuity is also cited in the research. Not one of the 16 children in the cases examined within this study had any health services in the month before their deaths, Lauwers said.
"The community has arguably the most significant mental health and substance abuse issues in the entire province," the report found.
The Pikangikum research is contained within the chief coroner's office annual pediatric death review committee report. It is a summary of the in-depth review, done as an alternative to an inquest, and the full report with recommendations is expected to be released in August or September.
The research identifies a number of social challenges facing Pikangikum, where about 75 per cent of the homes don't have indoor plumbing or running water and where, in 2008, there were only 170 jobs.
But the research highlights education, noting the community's only school burned down in 2007 and despite a commitment from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada to rebuild the school, that has not yet happened.
There are 17 portables in its place, but Pikangikum really needs a formal school so it can serve as the hub of the community and children can be engaged in their education, Lauwers said.
"If we want these kids to get beyond the hopelessness and the desperation and the despair they feel if they are educated to a level where they can see some promise for their future it will go a long way to helping them," he said.
In addition, the coroner's report said "serious consideration" should be given to rethinking how education is delivered in First Nations communities, including possibly completely transferring the responsibility from federal jurisdiction to the provinces, which have considerably more experience in education.
Indian and Northern Affairs Canada didn't comment specifically on that recommendation when asked, but a spokeswoman said a national panel is currently seeking input on how to improve education for aboriginal children on reserves.