Youth suicide pacts highlight 'desperate' situation in Attawapiskat
Christina Commisso and Michael Shulman, CTVNews.ca
Published Tuesday, April 12, 2016 9:17AM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, April 12, 2016 10:45PM EDT
Upwards of 15 youth, including a nine-year-old, in the remote Attawapiskat First Nation had planned to overdose on prescription pills as part of two separate suicide pacts, local health officials have confirmed.
Health officials in the area say only one or two of the young people managed to ingest the drugs before they were apprehended by police and transferred to a local hospital on Monday.
"The only thing I could understand was that we gather together in happy times, and we gather together in desperate times. I believe these young people were desperate for attention," said Anna Betty Achneepineskum, Deputy Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which includes Attawapiskat.
The incident comes after Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency over the weekend, when 11 people in the community of 2,000 attempted suicide in a single day, prompting federal and provincial health officials to descend on the community.
Local officials have said community health-care workers are overwhelmed by the recent string of suicide attempts – which have totalled more than 100 since September of last year.
Following Monday's suicide attempts, the local hospital was so inundated that some of the affected youth were sent to the jail in Attawapiskat.
Another five more youth were taken to the Attawapiskat hospital for suicide attempts late Tuesday afternoon.
'You're not dealing with the systemic issues'
Deborah Hill, a nursing executive with the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority, said youth in the community appear to be taking a variety of prescription drugs that are found in their homes.
She said her team arrived in Attawapiskat at approximately 1 p.m. on Monday and worked well past midnight.
"There were clients constantly," she told CTV News Channel on Tuesday. "So you just feel like, yes you're helping an individual, but if you're not dealing with the systemic issues, those children are just going to keep coming in."
Hill said those systemic issues include high levels of poverty, suicide, addiction and alcoholism in certain remote First Nations communities.
"I hear the common theme that children don't feel like they have any hope, they don't feel like there is a future," she said.
Hill said suicide attempts in the community have been increasing since last fall, when a 13-year-old girl in the community died of suicide.
"I don't know whether the community has ever recovered from that," she said.
In a teleconference on Tuesday, Keith Conn, assistant deputy minister of Health Canada's First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, said he spoke to Attawapiskat Chief Bruce Shisheesh who relayed concerns to him about the efficacy of the psychological and psychiatric assessments of affected youth.
Conn said Shisheesh told him some of the youth who attempt suicide are transferred by medevac but are then back in the community "the next day or two days later."
"There's got to be a revisiting of the assessment process to ensure that the youth are properly assessed, diagnosed and then, more importantly, what is the aftercare plan within the community?" said Conn.
Conn said the youth who have attempted suicide or who have displayed high risk behaviour are transported to hospitals in Timmins, Moose Factory or Kingston where they're assessed by a psychiatrist or psychologist who make the ultimate decision about discharging a patient.
He added that Health Canada doesn't' "control the process," but he committed on behalf of the department to explore the assessment and the aftercare needs.
Conn said he believes a "small handful of youth," who attempted suicide in the original incident, were part of the recent pacts.
Conn said Shisheesh told him people in the community heard about the pacts, and mental health workers, police, and other local leadership investigated and intervened on Monday night.
Two boys, who recently attempted suicide, told CTV News they were encouraged by their friends on Facebook to pop prescription pills.
"There were …five or six of us," said one.
"At first people thought it was a game, but it's not, right?" said the other.
New resources to help Attawapiskat in the long-term and short-term are also on their way to the community or have already arrived, said Conn.
Conn said there will be about 18 new support workers in Attawapiskat, including: two counsellors from the Nishnawbe Aski Nation; two youth support workers; a psychologist who was deployed on Tuesday; five mental health counsellors from the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority; and an emergency health team from the Ontario government.
Conn said Nishnawbe Aski Nation has also sent four police officers to the community. It previously had two officers.
Prior to the declaring of a state of emergency, Conn said resources in the community were "quite limited."
He said it had one mental health worker and a mental health co-ordinator position that was vacant for a couple of months because of issues surrounding retention and housing until it was filled a few months ago by someone from the community.
"There has to be more aggressive work in terms of permanent mental health workers, but more so mental health workers that will address the youth's need for service … in the community but also in the school system," said Conn.
Conn said there's no predetermined amount of time in terms of how long additional resources will stay in Attawapiskat, but he said there will be a transitional process "over the coming months."
Conn also said a number of community members went through residential school system and there's "a lot of intergenerational trauma."
"The youth are crying out for culture and language to be at the forefront in terms of their daily lives. They've lost some of that through the residential school process," said Conn.
"Without hope, purpose, meaning and belonging, the youth are lost and we need more work in terms of inspirational energy for the community and youth."
Suicide attempts 'out of control'
On Monday, Shisheesh said suicide attempts in the community are "out of control."
"Today I got a message delivered by the police force…I was notified as chief that there were 13 kids that were apprehended," Shisheesh told CTV News on Monday. "And that's why I'm saying, it's getting out of control."
The Assembly of First Nations, meanwhile, is calling for immediate action and long-term support for Attawapiskat and National Chief Perry Bellegarde is expected to visit the community on Wednesday.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett is also expected to be in Attawapiskat later this week.
Hill said she's hopeful that the recent focus on Attawapiskat could result in real change in the community.
"This is going to take a big effort to look at housing, water, (and) youth programs," she said. "Things for children to do as opposed to just hanging out in groups in and around the community."
Federal and provincial officials were scheduled to meet with local Attawapiskat leaders on Tuesday afternoon to discuss what resources can be brought into the community.
Despair in Attawapiskat
The House of Commons also held an emergency debate on Attawapiskat on Tuesday evening.
"We have a lot of caring people here," Achneepineskum said. "We have many people quite concerned about what's going on, and because the resources available to them are so lacking, at times they don’t know where to go."
Murray Sinclair, a retired Manitoba judge and former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said the mental health crisis is drawing attention to the despair in Attawapiskat.
"Right now, I can sense there is a lot of despair among young people and that they’re feeling that there’s really not much hope for them," Murray told reporters in Ottawa on Tuesday afternoon, before he was scheduled to be sworn in as a senator.
"They’re living in terrible circumstances and they need to have those circumstances alleviated as well," he said.