Iqaluit welcomes circumpolar suicide workshop

GN-funded workshop evaluates available programs



Experts from around the circumpolar world gathered in Iqaluit March 13 to 14 for the Best Practices Suicide Prevention and Evaluation of Arctic Suicide Prevention Programs workshop.

Recommendations from the conference, sponsored by the Government of Nunavut, will be presented in Inuktitut and English at the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention (CASP) conference in Iqaluit May 15 to 18.

“These are our beneficiaries who have been lost to suicide. It is their grieving families who are also our beneficiaries. I am aware that people cannot continue to live in such a highly reactive state, surrounded by such loss, without beginning to take on much of the anxiety and uncertainty that springs from it,” said Cathy Towtongie, the president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. in her opening address.

Visiting guests included Tracy Westerman, the first Australian aboriginal to earn a PhD in clinical psychology, Hugh Brody, whose books and films focus on the Arctic, and Chris Aquino, an Alaskan counsellor specializing in culturally specific suicide prevention programs.

Presenters said exchanging ideas would continue long after the conference.

“I’m going to continue to share information with people through e-mail,” Westerman said.

Westerman recently developed the first culturally sensitive suicide assessment administered by aboriginal youth for aboriginal youth. The written evaluation measures levels of anxiety and depression in youths 13 to 17 years old.

“What we found is a difference in symptoms between aboriginal and non-aboriginal youth which suggests [existing] mainstream tools aren’t assessing indigenous kids properly,” she said.

Westerman’s research noted that acting out, such as picking fights, is a warning sign among Aboriginal youths contemplating suicide. Conversely, non-aboriginal youths were more inclined to become introverted before a suicide attempt.

Chris Aquino runs a series of land programs in villages in and around Anchorage, Alaska, for First Nations youth. There are about 125 deaths per year due to suicide in the region. While the number has not changed in 15 years, it’s the villages without the state-funded projects that have more suicides, Aquino said.

“It’s something for take a look at,” he said.

Aware academics sometimes intellectualize suicide, Aquino said the workshop found balance between theory and reality.

But not everyone was so quick to applaud the conference. One participant wondered out loud why the workshop wasn’t held two months later to coincide with CASP.

Co-chair Jack Hicks said not all presenters were available to attend the conference in May. He was also aware of other criticisms.

“It would be perfectly reasonable for someone to say every dollar spent on this workshop is a dollar that wasn’t spent on front line [suicide prevention] programs. But that’s not how government works,” he said.

“There has to be a certain amount of stepping back and reflection. I think the question should be why has it taken this long, given the commonality of the suicide profile in the Arctic, to bring people together and say, ‘What have you learned?’”

He said Westerman’s work has huge potential in Nunavut.

“What Tracy showed us is a vision of the future when we have Inuit mental health professionals doing things in an Inuit way.”

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