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Nunavut suffers second-worst suicide count in 2011

33 residents, including 11 in Iqaluit, die by suicide


In 2011, many Nunavut residents continued to suffer the paralyzing grief of seeing family members and friends die by suicide in staggering numbers. (PHOTO BY JIM BELL)

In 2011, many Nunavut residents continued to suffer the paralyzing grief of seeing family members and friends die by suicide in staggering numbers. (PHOTO BY JIM BELL)

Thirty-three Nunavut residents, including a 12-year-old boy from Kugaaruk, died by suicide in 2011, the second-worst year in the territory’s history, Nunavut’s chief coroner, Padma Suramala, confirmed Jan. 27.

That includes 11 suicides in Iqaluit, the highest number of suicides ever recorded in the community’s history in any one year.

“Suicide affects all of us, whether it is a family member, a friend, a co-worker or a friend of a co-worker. We must all play a part in helping support each other by learning to recognize the signs of suicidal behaviour…,” Suramala said.

In 2010, only three people died by sucide in Iqaluit. Until 2011, 1998 was the worse year ever in the community, when 10 suicide deaths were recorded.

Of the 33 completed suicides that occurred across Nunavut in 2011, children, youths and young adults account for most of the dead: two children aged 10 to 14, nine teens aged 15 to 19, and nine young adults aged 20 to 24.

A 34th death, recorded by the chief coroner as a 2011 suicide statistic, is a middle-aged man from Pond Inlet who died in 2008 but whose remains weren’t found until this past summer.

Only 2003, when 37 people died by suicide in Nunavut, produced a greater death toll than 2011. In 2010, 29 people in Nunavut took their lives.

The youngest suicide was that of a 12-year-old boy from Kugaaruk who died in early November 2011.

But middle-aged and older people also took their lives.

In Iqaluit, residents coped with the marriage of suicide and murder, when 42-year-old Sylvain Degrasse shot himself in head this past June while lying on his sister’s grave at the Iqaluit cemetery.

Earlier that day, Degrasse took the lives of his spouse and two of their children, raising the total number of Nunavut homicides in 2011 to seven.

Another victim was a middle-aged woman living in Iqaluit who died in the playground of Joamie School while the rest of the community was distracted by last year’s bowhead whale hunt.

A few days prior to her death, the woman, apparently in the grip of a deep depression, used her Facebook page to plead for help.

Natan Obed, the acting president of the Embrace Life Council, said it’s not uncommon for completed suicides to occur in clusters — but these large numbers suggest many people are thinking about it.

“What we are looking at here is a seriously large amount of suicidal ideation in the population.”

And it suggests that large numbers of people in Iqaluit are coping with the issues that lie behind suicide: alcoholism, depression, mood disorders, cannabis use and high rates of social dysfunction.

“It all compounds on a person as they go through life,” he said.

It’s also impossible not to notice that a large number of deaths occurred in Iqaluit, a community that hosts more services than any other place in Nunavut.

And it also suggests that even in Iqaluit, where at least some mental health services exist, those at risk do not how to find them.

“We’re not identifying people who are at risk. That’s what this speaks to,” Obed said.

He also said this suggests that many Nunavut residents do not know where to look for mental health services when they want help.

“If access is an issue in Iqaluit, then that speaks volume about access to services across the territory.”

To that end, the Embrace Life Council, which Obed describes as being in a state of transition at the moment, plans to create a major communications plan.

The purpose of that plan is to “link people to services and information,” Obed said.

As for the Nunavut Suicide Prevention Strategy, which the Embrace Life Council helped create, Obed said the plan is “going marginally well and now must become more urgent.”

An action plan for carrying out that strategy, unveiled this past fall by the Government of Nunavut, states who should do what, and when.

For example, it states that the Nunavut Departments of Education, and Health and Social Services, should have created a referral process for children at risk by January 2012.

And by April 2012, the GN and other organizations are supposed to have a plan to provide “culturally and age appropriate grief counselling” in Nunavut communities.

Iqaluit Mayor Madeleine Redfern said she also believes that mental health services in Iqaluit and elsewhere in Nunavut are poorly publicized.

For example, she said she has just heard that the GN has hired two resident psychiatrists to work in Iqaluit — but few people know about it.

“Iqaluit has services, but people don’t know where to reach them,” Redfern said.

To that end, the Baffin mayors passed a resolution this past spring asking the GN to supply communities with lists of available services — but so far, the GN has yet to respond, she said.

A big issue for Iqaluit, Redfern said, is that many local residents have seen the quality of their lives get worse since the creation of Nunavut.

“There was a lot of hope and happiness with the creation of the new territory… But I don’t think that we have put a lot of support in place to help people cope with change,” she said.

“A lot of local residents feel they have not benefited from these changes. They see people from other communities and the South come in and taking housing and jobs.”

Another worry for Redfern is the well-known link between alcohol abuse, depression and suicide.

“There’s a significant number of people who complete suicides under the influence of alcohol,” she said.

People in Nunavut and Nunavik who are in distress may call the Nunavut Kamatsiaqtut Help Line at 1-867-979-3333, or toll-free at 1-800-265-3333 every night, between 7:00 p.m. and midnight.

The Keewatin Crisis Line may be reached at 1-867-645-3333, Monday to Friday, 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.

The Kugluktuk Awareness Centre may be reached at 1-867-982-4673.

The Kid’s Help Phone is available at 1-800-668-6868.

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