In today’s world, the elevated rate of suicide among Inuit communities is a grave public health concern that demands immediate attention. This issue is deeply rooted in the complex web of social challenges that have emerged over the past few decades. Suicide among Inuit is not merely a statistic; it’s a profound crisis that calls for a concerted, evidence-based, national response. Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) took a significant step in addressing this crisis by releasing the National Inuit Suicide Prevention Strategy (NISPS) in July 2016 in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik. This strategy is a beacon of hope, designed to guide community service providers, policymakers, and governments in their efforts to reduce the rate of suicide among Inuit to a level that is on par with or below the national average in Canada.
Understanding the Roots
To effectively combat the alarming suicide rates among Inuit, it’s crucial to understand the historical and contemporary factors contributing to this crisis. Suicide was historically rare in Inuit society, but significant shifts in social and economic conditions have given rise to a myriad of risk factors. These include high unemployment rates, limited access to mental health services, low educational attainment, and the enduring impact of intergenerational trauma.
The 1970s marked a turning point when the suicide rate among Inuit in Canada exceeded the national average. This increase coincided with significant social and economic changes orchestrated by the federal government after World War II. Families were relocated from their ancestral lands into settlements, often facing overcrowded and inadequate housing conditions. These events were accompanied by traumatic experiences, including the effects of residential schools, epidemics, and rapid societal transitions.
This social and economic upheaval created fertile ground for risk factors associated with suicide to multiply and persist across generations. Substance abuse, family violence, and poor mental health became more prevalent within Inuit communities. Sadly, despite these glaring issues, government support and services remained disproportionately inadequate, reflecting historical inequalities.
A Holistic Approach to Prevention
The NISPS offers a comprehensive approach to suicide prevention, acknowledging that effective intervention must begin early in life to prevent individuals from reaching the point of contemplating suicide. It’s founded on robust evidence linking various life experiences and conditions to suicidal behavior.
Inuit individuals and communities face both societal and individual risk factors for suicide. Societal factors include exposure to suicide, historical and intergenerational trauma, and limited access to essential services. Individual risk factors encompass childhood abuse, poverty, undiagnosed mental health disorders, and substance abuse. However, protective factors, such as Inuit-specific mental health services, strong family and community connections, and economic stability, can mitigate the negative effects of these risk factors.
Priorities for Action
The NISPS outlines six priority areas for guiding regional and community suicide prevention efforts:
- Creating Social Equity: Addressing systemic inequalities that contribute to suicide risk.
- Cultural Continuity: Fostering cultural preservation and continuity as a protective factor.
- Nurturing Healthy Inuit Children: Focusing on early intervention and support for children.
- Ensuring Access to Mental Wellness Services: Improving access to mental health services tailored to Inuit needs.
- Healing Unresolved Trauma and Grief: Recognizing and addressing the trauma within the community.
- Mobilizing Inuit Knowledge for Resilience: Tapping into indigenous knowledge for effective suicide prevention.
Implementation and Progress
Implementing the NISPS is a significant endeavor that requires time and resources. ITK, in collaboration with Health Canada, has secured funding to initiate the strategy’s implementation. This includes strengthening community understanding of suicide prevention, enhancing the capabilities of Inuit organizations, and leveraging resources for NISPS-related initiatives.
Significant achievements have already been made, including support for mental health services, youth programs, and infrastructure improvements in regions across Inuit Nunangat. Training programs such as Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) and Mental Health First Aid-Inuit (MHFA-I) are being rolled out to empower individuals with the skills to intervene effectively.
As implementation continues, the focus remains on early intervention and creating safe, nurturing environments for children. Resources for early learning and child care centers are being developed to build resilience in young Inuit individuals. Community interventions aligned with NISPS priorities are also receiving support.
Moving Towards a Better Future
The path towards reducing suicide rates among Inuit is long and challenging, but the NISPS provides a roadmap for change. It calls for governments to rise to the challenge of creating equity in society by addressing systemic inequalities, providing essential services, and promoting cultural preservation. In conclusion, we must confront all known risk factors contributing to elevated suicide rates within Inuit communities. The NISPS represents a beacon of hope and a commitment to a brighter future for Inuit individuals, especially our children. Implementation will require substantial resources and time, but the goal of reducing suicide rates is a cause worth fighting for.