When you're taking calls from the North, you often hear a lot of very serious issues, involving violence, abuse. You might get a call, and the caller will talk about something innocuous for a while, and then you might say, "Is there anything else you wanted to tell me before we hang up?" And then all of a sudden, once you've made a connection and they feel there's trust, you'll find out that they'd been sexually abused 20 years before and they've never told anybody, and this is the first time they've let it out.
Those kinds of calls can happen anywhere and any place, but they're certainly ones we have received.
Jan. 15, 1990, was when we opened the telephone lines for the Nunavut Kamatsiaqtut Help Line. In 1989, there were a lot of suicides in Nunavut, especially in the Qikiqtani (or Baffin) Region. A conference was organized with players from all the affected communities, and I was part of that conference, to explore the problem and possible solutions. One idea put forward was the establishment of the first Northern crisis line, manned by trained volunteers. There was some concern that a line wouldn't be used, since not everyone had telephones, but there was definitely an interest and desire to have one. The first night, we had quite a few calls. And we've been going every night since then.
When that phone rings, the volunteers don't know who is on the other end. It could be somebody just asking for information. It could be somebody in a very fragile state and contemplating suicide seriously. In terms of how seriously, the volunteers would have to work that out as they talk. And that can be quite scary, to be honest.
But our volunteers are trained to remain calm, and make a risk assessment and find out more about the caller, find out about their situation, their family, who they care about, et cetera. And then we make a contract with them, to try to get them to decide to stay alive for at least 24 hours.
Nobody can promise never to think about suicide. Nobody can promise to say they'll never do it. And we don't ask that because when you ask for something that's impossible, it's not going to work. But one thing I've found that has worked well is to say, "If you are thinking about suicide, can you promise me you'll phone back or talk to someone you trust before you do anything?"
Often that gets them through that critical period when they're thinking about suicide. And we help them figure out what they're going to do for the next 24 hours. Are they going to make a cup of tea after they hang up? Are they going to phone a friend or watch a television show? If that doesn't work, what can they do instead? We help them work through that, so they're not wondering what to do but have a plan in their head.
You can also ask them to think back to when they felt safe. Often, I have them close their eyes and visualize that. What was a day you really felt good? What were you wearing? What was the weather like? Who was with you? They'll start to tell you about it and explain what was happening that day. And when you get into how they were feeling, they'll tell you they were happy, they felt safe, they felt good. Then, you can remind them, "Those feelings are still within you."
Usually as they're telling you this, you can feel them calming down. You can hear a change in their voice. You can feel that these memories are making a positive impact. That can help ground them.
The other thing I've found can help is helping them realize there are people in their lives. Sometimes, they'll say, "Nobody loves me." But most times, when I say, "Well, who do you love?" they will tell me, "Oh, I have a baby sister" or "I have a grandmother" or whoever it is. As we're talking, I will then say, "You know, your suicide would really impact them for the rest of their lives." As they begin to realize that, that often helps them decide, "Okay, I might want to hurt my boyfriend, who has been horrible, but I don't want to hurt my grandmother."
Often, they will call back the next day and say they're doing fine. But a lot of the time, they don't. If you haven't heard of a suicide in Nunavut, then you know they're doing fine.
You have to remember in Nunavut, there are very few people who haven't been impacted by suicide. Suicide is prevalent there. It has been for a number of years. That puts so many people at risk. But that doesn't mean when somebody talks about suicide they're at a high risk at that moment. It just often means they've been impacted and they need to talk about it. They're telling you about a family member, a friend or they sometimes talk about themselves in the past. So you have to really listen and not jump to conclusions as soon as they say the word "suicide."
Even so, when I'm on the line, it takes a while to sort of decompress once I come home because you're on edge, whether you think you were or not. Thank goodness my husband is now a volunteer. It's important to keep the calls confidential and anonymous, but we encourage volunteers to talk to each other.
I'm not going to pretend it isn't hard. It has been difficult. I've certainly had a lot of experience and once I get into a call, I'm fine and you do what is necessary at the time. But as much as anybody, when the phone rings, I jump.
We've been lucky so far in that we haven't had anyone take their life soon after a call. But I say "so far" because you never know. Things could change tomorrow. There are no guarantees in life and there are certainly no guarantees with this type of work. But it's important to know you've tried your best under the circumstances.
Sheila Levy is a co-founder and executive director of the volunteer-run, 24-hour Nunavut Kamatsiaqtut Help Line, 1-800-265-3333. An estimated 3.4 million Canadians, or 12.1 per cent of the population aged 15 or older, have seriously contemplated suicide in their lifetime, according to Statistics Canada data released March 22, 2017. Suicidal thoughts were more prevalent among First Nations people living off-reserve, Métis and Inuit (25.4 per cent), compared with the non-aboriginal population (11.7 per cent).
– As told to Wency Leung