Northern Saskatchewan once again struggling with youth suicide

Youth suicides in northern Saskatchewan are once again grabbing the attention of the provincial government.

In the past two days, the Minister of Rural and Remote Health Greg Ottenbreit said he’s been made aware of one suicide and two attempts in La Loche, Sask.

“It’s terrible, it’s a tragedy. I mean, we never want to see the loss of life before its time, especially if it’s younger people,” Ottenbreit said.

First Nations and Metis relations critic Buckley Belanger represents the area, and said addiction is a contributing factor in northern suicides.

“The drug abuse that’s happening, and you throw in over-crowded home conditions. All these factors layer and put pressure on our young people, and at the end of the day they simply give up,” he said.

Last fall, six young girls took their own lives in the provinces north.

Belanger said La Loche needs stronger mental health supports and addictions services.

He added that many grandparents in the northern community are the primary caregivers of their grandkids, and their circumstances can make treatment difficult to access.

“Many times that means moving away from your community. Many of the grandparents live on fixed incomes. How can they afford to send their child to Saskatoon or Prince Albert?” Belanger said.

“So we need more community based programs, because these lives are worth saving.”

Belanger credits the RCMP for their recent efforts in busting drug dealers in northern communities.

Government officials continue to meet with community leaders to see what supports they can offer. Minister Ottenbreit was in the area last week.

“To a certain extent, they’re happy with some of the supports that are in place, but looking for more support and it’s obvious that when suicides continue to happen that there is more work to do,” he said.

Some of these supports include hiring a mental health professional and community health nurse in La Loche. The town also has six doctors, 24 hour emergency care and extended hours at the clinic.

The province is looking to recruit two more nurses.

In the early 90’s, Stanley Mission was called the suicide capital of Canada by the Globe and Mail. Psychologist Lloyd Robertson lives in northern Saskatchewan and has studied the response to that suicide crisis.

The town of 950 people was at one point seeing 12 to 15 suicide attempts per month. Robertson said that outside help can’t be the sole response.

“Yes resources from the outside are needed, but they’re not the answer. The cancer is from within, and that’s where we have to find those answers is from within,” he said.

Robertson said that the community eventually had enough. He was holding a debriefing at the local health clinic, and community members began to show up. This led to a 12 to 14 hour conversation about how to tackle the suicide crisis.

This included a number of community driven initiatives, like locking up firearms, elders sharing wilderness survival skills with the youth, and a curfew.

“Parents would walk the streets to make sure that kids under the age of 16 weren’t out past the curfew deadline,” Robertson explained. “Police doing it, it’s not the same as parents doing it.”

Robertson said he does not have the same expertise with the current situation in La Loche, but believes communities banding together is the strongest way to combat suicide.

“If the local people bring in outside support, yes by all means. But there are local people, and local counsellors, and other local expertise that perhaps are under-utilized. Those people have to be identified,” he said.

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