Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Collective Psychosis Cure

"The problem has certainly been growing since the '70s in Ontario. I know from my own research that in the northern parts of Ontario both suicide attempts and deaths saw a tenfold increase in about 1985."
Gerald McKinley, aboriginal health expert, Western University, London, Ontario

"[Young people] want programs and services and better schools, things that we often take for granted. [Youth in Attawapiskat want basic things] YWCA, swimming pool, hockey rink, new school, more teachers, no alcohol on reserve, parenting classes. They want supports and they want healthy things to do."
"We don't even have a word of suicide in our languages. Do you know what that tells me? It tells me that it did not exist in our communities before contact."
Carrie Bourrassa, indigenous health studies professor, First Nations University of Canada, Regina

"[Anthropological research shows] within traditional societies, although infrequent, people did take their own lives."
"Nonetheless, [suicide] seems to have been regarded as aberrant behaviour, as the fact that no indigenous word has been identified that could be translated with the term."
Academic paper, Canadian Journal of Native Studies, 1991

Children from Neskantaga First Nation greet Carolyn Bennett, minister of indigenous affairs, at the airport in the northern Ontario community on Friday.
Children from Neskantaga First Nation greet Carolyn Bennett, minister of indigenous affairs, at the airport in the northern Ontario community on Friday. (Jody Porter/CBC)

The rash of suicides within aboriginal communities that far outstrip similar attempts by young people to take their own lives in the general Canadian population, appear to have begun in an episode when a 17-year-old boy on a remote First Nation reserve shot himself to death, distraught that his parents were separating. Since that time in 1974, the idea of suicide has transmitted itself to greater and greater numbers of young aboriginals to become what is now referred to as an "epidemic".

Last year an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal noted 468 First Nations youth and adults had killed themselves in Ontario between 1991 and 2013. About half of those suicides were committed by people 25 years of age and under. While not all First Nations reserves are plagued with suicides, some clearly are, where clusters of young people claim to feel unbearable pain and seek to end their lives.

The causes are many, from family dysfunction, a change in familial structure, substance abuse, inter-generational trauma, violence, low employment opportunities, and financial insecurity. Obviously for some young people for whom not merely one but many of those soul-destroying traumas occur, they become more vulnerable and susceptible to the allure of a personal final solution to their insecurities and fears.

While Ms. Bourrassa enumerates the social needs of isolated teens, those needs in a sense reflect those of any community's young people; boredom is a trigger for self-destructive and societally destructive behaviours. But for all Ms. Bourrassa's clinical and academic and personal attributes as a social scientist she still falls into the self-recusing trap of blaming outside influences for the fallout of communities incapable of managing their fairly basic social needs.

Authors of a 1991 paper published in the Canadian Journal of Native Studies noted that suicides in the Cree and Ojibway communities in northwest Ontario were happening with "frightening regularity". The Sioux Lookout Zone Hospital reported in 1990 that 143 attempts were made at suicide of which ten succeeded. "These individuals are basically lonely, isolated youth who have never developed a sufficient repertoire of interpersonal skills or of constructive modes of coping with life's frustrations" noted another article published in the Canadian Psychiatric Association Journal in 1977.

Researchers pinpointed the obvious: an observable and growing disconnect with their own aboriginal culture, and at the same time experiencing difficulties in successful adjustment to the greater Canadian culture they had become part of, even at a remove. A McGill University psychiatry professor, Laurence Kirmayer, observed in a 1994 article that suicide clusters posed a "special problem for native communities in which many individuals are closely related and share the same predicaments so that the impact of one suicide is deeply felt within the whole community".

So is the answer a generalized and pointed psychiatric effort to turn the situation around, to help First Nations people find value in their hybrid existence between the abandoned cultural heritage of yore, and the newer realities of being a part of a larger culture of modern technology and values geared to self-sufficiency while still being reliant on state social programs? The paternalistic and longstanding method of providing funding for communal reserves where ownership of homes and self-reliance through employment are denied haven't worked.

Not, it seems, as long as First Nations insist that they must live on isolated reserves representing their historical roots, where employment opportunities are absent, and given how remotely located they are, social remedies such as advanced education, medical facilities, recreational opportunities cannot be matched with those available in large urban centres, or even smaller towns where travel is eased by geographical convenience.

Yet First Nations crying out for help from governments, beseeching the wider community of the country to stand alongside them in their ever greater demands from government and tax coffers in their support in their search for satisfaction and security in their hybrid lifestyle, bristle with indignation when it is suggested that they leave their ancestral lands which no longer offer them life support, and seek their fortunes where other Canadians do, where employment, along with social welfare institutes are available.

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